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October 27, 2005

Fitness for Life plan encourages healthy employee lifestyles

It’s time to take a holiday — a premium holiday, that is.

Pitt has launched a new Fitness for Life program, in partnership with UPMC Health Plan, that means a month’s free health care premium for UPMC Health Plan enrollees who undergo a simple health screening.

The goal of the program is to encourage individuals to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Participants who by March 31 complete the voluntary screening — which measures glucose (blood sugar), cholesterol (both HDL/“good” and LDL/“bad” levels), height and weight, and blood pressure — receive a waiver on premium contributions next July. Cost of the screening is covered under the health plan.

“Health-care costs are escalating far above normal inflation rates,” said John Kozar, director of benefits in the Office of Human Resources. “There’s no magic bullet for that. Costs will continue to go up. The health screening for Fitness for Life is the beginning of a long-term program to promote healthy living and we’re marketing it to all faculty and staff with the premium waiver as this year’s incentive. It’s a work in progress. And it’s not just a cost-effective thing in the long run; it’s the right thing to do for your health.”

Pitt is encouraging employees (and their spouses or partners) to go to their primary care physician for a wellness visit to have the screening and any other tests the PCP thinks are appropriate, Kozar said. To be eligible for the premium waiver, partners and spouses (but not dependent children) covered by the health plan also must undergo the screening.

“We recommend that you call your PCP in advance and tell them you want this test,” he said. “Some physicians will draw blood during the office visit, while others will refer patients to a laboratory that specializes in these types of tests. If you get the screening done in advance of your wellness visit you’re able to discuss the results with the physician at the visit.”

Kozar also urged Pitt faculty and staff to complete the on-line Fitness for Life questionnaire (, which records an individual’s lifestyle data, such as diet and exercise routines.

“When you complete the questionnaire, you will get a ‘doctor’s summary’ to print out and take with you to your doctor’s visit,” as a further guide for health advice, he said. The web site features a Fitness for Life health record link, where a user can keep personal health information in a secure, password-protected environment, and a wide range of health-related information links.

The University also is offering free on-campus clinics where employees can get the health screening. Blood will be drawn via a “finger stick,” and UPMC health professionals will staff the clinics, which will include informational materials on health and wellness, according to Debra R. Horn, vice president for clinical services and network performance at UPMC Health Plan.

“Participants will get copies of their results on-site and a copy will be forwarded to the PCP, which is why we ask that participants bring their insurance card,” Horn said. “Participants also should fast for 12 hours before their appointment. The whole screening, including getting the results, takes about an hour. If there are abnormal results, you can schedule a follow-up appointment with your doctor to discuss the tests and possible treatments.”

(For clinic dates and locations, see related story.)

Physicians in the UMPC Health Plan network have been alerted to the Fitness for Life program, Horn added.

“We believe Fitness for Life will accomplish the most when the patient and the physician are actively involved in managing the patient’s health,” Horn pointed out. “The information generated by a health screening is an important first step in this process. However, physician participation and the feedback provided to their patients are crucial to the program, which is designed to help employees maintain or improve their health.”

Now in its nascent stage, Fitness for Life hopes to establish a baseline of information to guide future initiatives at Pitt, Kozar said.

“The blood draw is preventative in that the health screenings may reveal previously unknown conditions or health risks,” Kozar said. “You can’t manage what you don’t know, so this is really an educational program. When you read statistics like: Forty percent of the [U.S.] population age 40-75 have a pre-disposition for diabetes, you wonder what percentage of that population knows whether they’re at risk.

“If we discover, yes, there is a significant population with a high incidence of a particular condition or disease, then prevention programs are something we’ll look into,” Kozar added. “Eventually, this should lead to lower health care costs. How much it will is what we’re trying to measure on a longitudinal basis. We’re not interested in an individual’s test measures; but aggregate data that the health plan will provide us, the big picture, will help us.”

According to Horn, the UPMC Health Plan already has health management programs in place for common serious conditions including asthma, diabetes and congestive heart failure. These could serve as models for management programs for other diseases, she noted.

Horn said the Fitness for Life program also is seeking volunteers to help promote the program at the unit level. Such volunteers could provide updates on program activities and reminders to colleagues to schedule a wellness visit and other program-related information.

(Interested parties should contact Susie McDonald in Human Resources at 412/624-8068 or e-mail her at

According to Kozar, the Fitness for Life program has the broad support of the University community, including from the University Senate benefits and welfare committee.

Pitt economics professor Herbert Chesler, who has served for many years on benefits and welfare, noted his committee endorsed the Fitness for Life program last spring when it was proposed by Human Resources.

In years past, when Pitt negotiated health insurance contracts with various providers annually, those insurers acknowledged that lower costs result from subscribers who take better care of themselves, Chesler pointed out.

“So, Highmark, for example, currently pays for senior citizens’ membership in health clubs,” he said. “We asked the question, why not bring that philosophy down to the workplace level, which would be of benefit to the whole University in both improved health and lower costs?”

But efforts to convince the insurance providers to offer incentives for wellness programs “didn’t get anywhere,” he said. Chesler attributed the Fitness for Life program’s getting off the ground to “aggressive, professional and proactive staff at Human Resources” and a commitment by the University to improve the health of its employees.

“A couple years ago, the University decided to become self-insured thereby incurring the insurance risks. When we heard about the Fitness for Life program, benefits and welfare became concerned over the cost to the University of this program in incentives, such as waiving a month’s premium fee,” Chesler said.

“But the logic of the program’s benefits was so compelling for the realization of its promises — both improvements in personal health and lifestyle and containment of future cost increases in medical insurance — that we endorsed the program despite these concerns.”

As for future initiatives related to the program, Chesler said: “I believe one of the next steps in the Fitness for Life program should be the establishment of a University-wide committee to explore ways of mobilizing University-based experts in public health, wellness, fitness, exercise physiology, motion science, etc., to develop programs — including appropriate incentives — utilizing our resources and facilities for the promotion of the quality of employee life and workplace productivity.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 5

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