March 2010

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Health Care Risk Assessments Save Costs and Lives in Tennessee

With health insurance costs continuing to rise and Washington gridlocked on how to reform the system, local unions and employers continue to share a keen interest in containing costs while promoting a healthy work force.

In Sparta, Tenn., a health screening partnership between Local 2143 and Philips Luminaires' lighting fixture plant is not just trimming costs, but saving the lives of union members, including Local 2143 Business Manager Jerry Pryor's. The dramatic success of the wellness program is part of a record of achievement that made it one of Industry Week magazine's top 10 plants in 2009.

Pryor signed up for a colonoscopy two years ago at a company-sponsored health fair. "They say the test isn't necessary until age 50. I was 48, but I signed up anyway," says Pryor. The screening showed a mass in his colon that doctors said could have taken his life within two years.

Pryor is not alone. Since the self-insured employer, located about an hour-and-a-half east of Nashville, began offering voluntary risk assessments and blood analysis free to all workers six years ago, dozens have been diagnosed with serious conditions that were successfully treated. Lisa Norris, Philips Sparta's human resource manager, told Industry Week that 5 percent of workers accounted for 50 percent of the plant's health care costs, but "those sick workers changed from year to year." The only way to get ahead of those costs, she said, was through extensive screening to detect disease, coupled with educational programs to address diabetes, smoking, obesity and other conditions.

Ninety percent of Philips' work force participates in risk assessments. One hundred workers were diagnosed with serious health conditions in the first year of the program. Only nine were similarly diagnosed last year.

Once a week a nurse is available in the plant and mental health specialists are on site two days a week. "Not too many people [in the 140 member bargaining unit] are on sick leave anymore," says Pryor.

The productivity of Philips' work force—despite a tough national economy—mirrors its progress on health care savings. Bargaining unit members, who manufacture fluorescent lighting for schools and public buildings and specialty lights for airports and swimming pools, were working 10 hours a day, six days a week until the beginning of February. The last large producer of fluorescent lighting in the U.S., Philips and Local 2143 have stayed in competition with manufacturers in China and other nations by involving workers in improving techniques and practices.

Tenth District International Rep-resentative Brent Hall—who helped negotiate the last two contracts at Philips—says that the company has "softened the impact of the economic downturn in Sparta," by working with the union and electrical contractors to aggressively market the plant's products as "made in Tennessee/made in the USA."


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