The city of Columbia opened the doors of its new employee health and wellness center Tuesday – a move officials said would save the city millions of dollars in recouped medical expenses.
“We (will) save four dollars in health care costs for every one we spend on wellness,” said Mayor Steve Benjamin at a ribbon-cutting ceremony held at the new 3,000-square-foot facility next door to the Drew Wellness Center on Harden Street.
Columbia, which is self-insured, currently pays about $20 million in health care benefits annually for a pool of about 5,000 people. That pool includes full-time employees, eligible part-time employees, retirees, or “pre-Medicare” individuals and their dependents.
In a deal worked out with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and Doctors Care, the city agreed to pay Doctors Care $780,000 a year to run the center. BlueCross BlueShield will act as third party administrators in the claims process.
Those covered can see a primary-care doctor and get prescriptions filled – both with no insurance co-pay. They also can sign up for a 12-week wellness regimen to help bring their chronic problems – obesity, high blood pressure, etc. – under control.
Interior renovations on the center, housed in the Celia Saxon Center next door to the AllSouth Federal Credit Union and other businesses, came in at $305,000. The center will employ two nurse practitioners, one physician as well as a handful of administrative staff.
Columbia’s city manager, Steve Gantt said he expects the new deal to save the city about $2 million in its first year.
“Health care costs continue to go up every year,” he said. “If we can encourage our employees to go on the front end, we think we’ll see a substantial cost savings and have a healthier work force on the back end.”
How many employees use the center is important: The amount paid to Doctors Care will be a fixed amount whether the center sees two or 200 patients.
The city will launch an internal information campaign telling city employees about the new center and wellness programs designed to prevent chronic illnesses or other, more costly and severe conditions such as heart attack, kidney failure or diabetes, Gantt said.
As a sort of test run, recently the city sent all of its roughly 300 firefighters to the center for their annual physicals, an expense that would have cost the city more than $100,000 elsewhere, Gantt said. Instead, that money was rolled into the Doctors Care contract fee.
Officials also hope the city will see fewer missed work days and increased morale and productivity from healthier, happier employees who use the center and its programs, Gantt said.
Gantt said it was one of the best benefits given to city employees in probably 20 years.
A half-dozen or more South Carolina cities have similar health centers and wellness programs, according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
Mary Pat Baldauf, a city employee who attended the ribbon-cutting, is already a proponent of the center’s employee wellness program, a pre-existing program that will be continued at the new center.
Baldauf, who lost 98 pounds in the past two years on the wellness program, said she plans to tell her coworkers about the new center.
“I think it’s going to be really exciting,” she said.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.