A western Massachusetts city is taking a unique step – actually, steps -- to encourage a healthier municipal workforce. Healthcare officials hope what the city of Chicopee is doing will spread to other cities and towns.
Beginning next month employees of the city of Chicopee can earn a $25 a month cash bonus by just walking an average of 7,000 steps a day, five days a week. Mayor Richard Kos said he hopes in the long run the wellness incentive program will help reduce employee absences and lower the city’s health insurance premiums.
" In the interim we will have employees who are concerned about their fitness, trying to do their best to feel better and we thought an incentive program was the best way to do it," he said.
Studies have found that diet and exercise, including walking more than 5,000 steps a day, can help people manage their weight, which in turn lowers risks for health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
Kos announced the “Mayor’s Walking Challenge” at a news conference Thursday. A kickoff event will take place June 1st.
" This is not pure walking. Our health providers have indicated that swimming, biking yoga, golf, are some activities you can utilize that can translate into steps to qualify," said Kos. " This is really a fitness initiative to give people an incentive to workout."
The incentive program is open to municipal and school department employees regardless of whether they have health insurance through the city. Chicopee has about 2,000 employees.
Ken Stearley, an assistant city messenger, said people in his seven-person department are excited about participating in the program.
" We do a lot of physical activity anyway, so to add this to our work hours and after- work hours is just a win-win," he said.
The city has set aside $100,000 for the incentive program. Chicopee City Council President George Moreau said the initial funding came from a largely untapped account to reimburse health insurance deductibles.
" I told the mayor if this program really takes off I would be very happy to approve more funds to make sure this program stays in effect," he said
The city’s health insurance providers, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Health New England are administering the program. The companies will provide participants with an accelerometer to record the actual steps taken. The data is entered in an online tracking form.
Christopher Jasinski, a program manager with Health New England, said Chicopee could serve as a model for other municipalities in western Massachusetts.
" The ultimate goal is healthier communities. Hampden County, when you look it in terms of health outcomes, ranks last in Massachusetts. So, there is a lot of opportunity here to make our community healthier," he said.
The participation level among employees at private companies that offer wellness programs averages 15 percent, but jumps to 25 percent when a cash incentive is included, according to Jasinski.