Ferndale, Michigan Workers Lose 1,052 1/2 Pounds, Save Money

By Kristen Jordan Shamus | October 25, 2013

Ounce by ounce, 30 Ferndale, Mich., city workers began to change their lives one year ago.

Today, they are 1,0521/2 pounds lighter, and they’re saving the city big bucks – an estimated $131,000 this year alone – in health care costs, according to the Detroit Free Press.

City Clerk Cherilynn Brown dropped 17 pounds, and no longer has knee pain that kept her from doing the things she loves. Now that she’s at her goal weight, she was able to go biking pain-free with her son on a recent vacation.

Ferndale Police Detective John Thul lost almost 60 pounds, and doesn’t worry that he’s going to have a stroke or aneurysm because of unmanageably high blood pressure.

“I work out about an hour and a half every day. I am actually stronger now and fitter now than when I went to the police academy,” he says.

Cecile Thompson, an accountant for the city, shed 99 pounds – going from a size 20 to a size 12. She doesn’t have to shop in plus-size stores anymore to find clothes that fit.

Although she looks like a different person compared with photos from a year ago, it’s arguably Cecile’s husband, Bob Thompson, who is most transformed.

At 279 pounds, he was on oxygen and was recovering from two prior heart attacks and a stroke when he signed up for the city-sponsored Weight Watchers at Work program in September 2012.

Now, he’s 34 pounds lighter and no longer needs an oxygen tank to breathe. He doesn’t need as much blood pressure medication, and is hopeful he can drop his cholesterol medicine in the near future.

“I was ready to give up; I was,” says Bob Thompson, 56. “I thought it was imminent; put me 6 feet under.

“But now I have a whole new outlook on life. … I never thought I’d get my wedding ring back on. It was five years that darn thing sat on my key ring, and I’ve got it on now. You can’t have another wedding ring. There’s only the one you get married in.

“I’m wearing size 36 pants, no more stretch pants. I’m happy. I am.”

Jenny Longthorne, the city’s human resources director, hoped that by starting a health initiative for city workers and their dependents, she could shave some costs from rising insurance expenses.

“In union negotiations, we’ve kind of hit a plateau with our medical plan. We’ve made some changes to it and employees are like, `OK, how much more can you possibly do?’ And so we agreed that we wouldn’t make changes. But in lieu of that, we still had to see some savings of some kind,” says Longthorne. “So we thought we might be able to do it in wellness on the back end, and assume some savings. We thought wellness would be a good way to start.”

Increasingly, employers are turning to wellness programs like the City of Ferndale’s to boost the health of their workers, reduce obesity and conditions brought on by a sedentary lifestyle, hoping the efforts will lower the ever-rising cost of their health care premiums, says Dr. Caroline Richardson, a researcher and associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan.

Wellness efforts range from weight-loss programs to discounts on gym memberships to asking employees to upload data from a pedometer to a computer to track how many steps they take each day.

“There’s a cultural shift going on where people are being asked to take responsibility for their health and take on some of the cost burden. There are issues around ethics that are just beginning to be explored with these programs, and there are protections within the law,” Richardson says.

“There are a number of things we have to think about when we consider these broad, sweeping changes in health care across the country,” she says. “The burden of these chronic conditions associated with obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet is really making a big impact on health care costs and morbidity.”

In Ferndale, city workers and dependents could sign up for Weight Watchers at Work program starting in September 2012, and the $150 cost was reimbursed by the city as long as they attended at least 10 of the 12 meetings in each session.

But after two 12-week sessions, the program was such a hit that the city opted to pay outright for the classes, says Longthorne, who has dropped 32 pounds herself through the program.

The city has spent about $9,000 for its employees to take part in the program in the past year, but the result, says Longthorne, has more than made up for the cost.

Tamica Brooks, the city’s police records coordinator, agrees: “One of the things we found is, while it’s been wonderful for us to lose weight . there’s also less absenteeism. People feel good; they enjoy life more.”

“And there’s a camaraderie that we have now. Individuals that I didn’t even say hi to, we now share recipes, experiences, ask how’s this exercise that you’re doing? We bring in treats that are healthy instead of doughnuts.”

Brooks lost 59 pounds, going from a size 16 to an 8. She’s close to her goal weight.

“I’m going all the way. … I’ll be living my best life,” she says.

In a city survey of employees who signed up for the program, 88 percent reported that relatives also have made positive changes, losing weight, eating more healthfully and exercising more.

That’s a ripple effect that thrills Florine Mark, president and CEO of Farmington Hills-based WW Group Inc.

“A lot of these people have children,” says Mark. “And childhood obesity, that’s a big problem these days. Hopefully, these parents can change their own eating habits, and start bringing good foods into the house. … If we can get to the adults, I think it’s a way of helping to get to kids.”

In all, 300 workplaces in Michigan now offer at-work Weight Watchers programs, and about 50 to 75 more are about to get started later this month, says Laurie Humphries, a spokeswoman for the WW Group. Of them, about 40 percent – a growing number – subsidize some or all of the cost of the program for employees.

The reason, Mark said, is that employers have come to realize that once workers “start to lose weight, many people get off their diabetic medication, their high blood pressure medication, so health care costs go down, prescription drug costs go down, absenteeism goes down. But the most important thing is that people feel better about themselves. And when you feel better about yourself, you do a better job.”

In addition to feeling better and stronger, Thul, the police detective, says he can now plan for a future he didn’t know he had when he was 59 pounds heavier.

“My doctor said I was lucky to be alive,” said Thul. “She said literally, at any time, a blood vessel in your head could explode under this kind of pressure and you’d be dead.

“We’re all going to die, but losing the weight took away the near-term threat. I was thinking, I might not see my grandkids graduate from high school. I might not see my grandkids go to kindergarten. You know? And now, it’s like, I’m comfortable planning 20, 30 years into the future again.”

Topics Michigan

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