The next time you walk by a typical vending machine, peek inside. You’ll probably see candy bars, extra-large cookies and potato chips. Healthful munchies? Not really, unless you find a bag of peanuts or almonds.
But at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, vending machines are more likely to offer fig bars, yogurt-covered apple crisps, whole-wheat crackers with sharp cheddar and a trail mix filled with dried pineapples and mangoes.
If an employee wants to order something more substantial — let’s say an omelet, a sandwich or an entree — in the cafeteria, a computer screen offers the nutrition facts, from calories and sodium content to fat grams and fiber.
“We don’t have french fries,” Blue Cross nutritionist Carol Folk said with some pride. “When I eat here, I usually order two vegetables and a protein.”
Speaking of vegetables, the cafeteria’s salad bar gives Blue Cross employee Ann Jones-Swepston of Dallas an opportunity to fill her plate with a rainbow.
“I’m trying to get a lot of color because each color has different antioxidants,” she said on a recent Wednesday, pointing to bright red tomatoes, deep red beets, orange carrots, light green edamame and dark green broccoli. “I’m looking for fiber and cancer prevention.”
Her co-workers Katy Little from Hazleton and Janel Oshinski of Nanticoke had brought lunch from home, and each had a small salad on the side.
“Had I known (I was going to be interviewed),” one of the women joked, “I wouldn’t have used the ranch dressing.”
But a little fat isn’t necessarily a problem. It can be part of a healthful diet.
Healthful diets, healthful exercise and healthful lifestyle choices are something Blue Cross encourages among its approximately 700 employees, about 150 of whom participate in such programs as Wednesday Walks. (If you see small groups of people wearing Blue Cross T-shirts and striding around downtown Wilkes-Barre on their lunch break, you’ve spotted them in action.)
“It’s great to get out of the office,” Wednesday walker Samara Mitkowski of Shavertown said, explaining she and her group of five friendly co-workers like to get away from their computers in all sorts of weather for a half-hour walk. If the weather is really inclement, however, Blue Cross has a wellness center with indoor treadmills they can use.
All these good-for-you activities and choices have paid off in a big way, said Brian Rinker, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at the local health insurer. Blue Cross has realized $1.3 million in higher employee productivity and lower health-care costs during the 12-month period ending in December 2011.
They also helped Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania receive recognition from the American Heart Association, which gave the local company the Start! Fit Friendly Company Platinum Award for the fifth consecutive year.
Dr. Nina Taggart, vice president of clinical operations and chief medical officer at Blue Cross, said the company is proud to receive the award, “which speaks to us walking the walk when it comes to wellness.”
The company’s Blue Health Solutions, which other companies that are Blue Cross customers can adopt, assesses the health-risk factors of employees and their spouses by asking questions about smoking, alcohol consumption, weight, exercise, etc. The intent is to help people modify their behavior so they can improve, perhaps from high-risk to moderate-risk or moderate-risk to low-risk.
“I try to find out where they’re at,” said Folk, the nutritionist, offering an example of how she gives advice. “If someone is drinking six cans of regular soda a day, I don’t go right to my first choice, which would be to replace that with water. I try to make it a small step, maybe asking them to cut down to five cans of soda a day.”
When Blue Cross compared its 2012 health assessments of 642 employees and spouses to earlier levels, it found 39 percent had reduced their risk factors by at least one level, while 38 percent maintained their risk factors. Of those employees initially determined to be in the high-risk category, 71 percent moved to a lower risk level.
As Blue Cross spokesman Anthony Matrisciano pointed out, the Wellness Council of America has estimated that for every dollar spent on employee health initiatives, an organization can expect a return of $3 to $6 in reduced costs, improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and better medical-insurance rates.
“Encouraging health and fitness can be something as simple as providing healthier choices in the employee cafeteria, offering quick and easy blood-pressure checks or starting a walk-at-lunch club, all things we have done,” Rinker said.“We can actually reduce risk factors that can lead to costly chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease.”