Cook County unveils employee wellness program

Tribune reporter

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Monday announced a new worker wellness program that’s all carrot and no stick, in contrast to a similar effort launched last year by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Free massages, cooking demonstrations and raffle prizes will be among the “goodies” offered to county workers who go to health fairs that start later this month, Preckwinkle said. Employees also can get free pedometers, with prizes awarded monthly for team walking contests.

And there will be no penalties for not taking part, as there are under Emanuel’s program for employees of the city and its sister agencies. Those who decline to take part in the city effort pay a monthly health-care premium penalty of $50.

“In my view, it’s much more effective to try to encourage people than threaten them,” said Preckwinkle, who was an educator before entering politics. “Maybe that’s because I’m a teacher, and I found encouragement worked better than threats.”

The penalty in Emanuel’s approach was cited by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge, with more than 10,000 members on the city payroll, as one reason not to take part.

Like the city program, the county effort takes aim at better controlling and preventing health problems sometimes related to people’s habits.

“We know that we have a significant number of employees who have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, weight-management issues and who use tobacco, but until now we haven’t done anything about it,” Preckwinkle said.

The health fairs, to be partly run by county insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield, will start April 16 with a “Spring Into Health!” program. The fairs will feature health assessments and screenings.
County worker unions like Preckwinkle’s approach.

“There are no penalties to the Spring Into Health program, just benefits that could change your life,” said Service Employees International Union Local 73 Vice President Betty Boles. “There’s the carrot without the stick, and we all know we should eat vegetables.”

Emanuel pegged city savings at $20 million this year. Preckwinkle declined to predict any savings on the county’s $300 million-a-year health care tab. The administration said there’s no added cost to the county.

“I know that the first priority is that we have a healthier workforce, and healthier families, andwhat comes second is saving the money,” Preckwinkle said. “That will come eventually as more and more of our employees get engaged in our wellness initiative.”

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