Mesa schools spend $35 million on health care each year and for the past three years have been looking at ways to reduce those costs through prevention and wellness.
For its efforts, Mesa Unified School District was awarded the 2008 Apex Award for its employee health care strategies, which the district calls "MPS - WIN!" (or Mesa Public Schools - Wellness Involvement Now!), a campaign to enhance and expand wellness initiatives for its work force.
When Andrea Billings, in charge of employee benefits for Mesa, learned the district had won the award, she said she was shocked because other competitors in the group included Fortune 500 companies such as IBM, Best Buy and Washington Mutual.
"I think they pulled us out because, as a public entity, we don't have a budget to spend on wellness. That makes us special because we have to figure out how to do something with nothing."
Some of the things Mesa has done include offering annual, reduced-cost flu shots for employees, free biometric screenings and diabetic seminars, gym discounts, a benefits health fair, wellness newsletters, continual educational campaigns and a Web site to provide employees with up-to-date information on their health and benefit offerings.
When Billings came to Mesa in 2005, the district had no wellness program and she immediately began working to implement one.
Mesa has approximately 11,000 employees, of which approximately of which 6,500 are enrolled in the medical and dental plans.
As Billings looked at employee demographics, she said she found some troubling trends, including a more sedentary and overweight work force whose average age was increasing.
Looking at the diagnoses and paid claims, she found that the majority of health care expenses were attributable to conditions and diseases that were consequences of unhealthy behaviors, such as musculoskeletal issues, heart disease and diabetes.
"In our business, we're always throwing around 'What is the answer?' " she said, with regard to keeping health care costs down. "Wellness is the latest trend, but I really do believe it is the answer. Our costs come from disease. If we can prevent disease, we keep costs down."
Billings could not say exactly how much the wellness program is saving Mesa, but said that nationally, employer health care costs went up about 11 percent last year while Mesa's rose 5 percent.
"And our claims are down," she said. The biggest number of claims for Mesa come from issues related to diabetes - 18 percent - while nationally, 5 percent of all claims are related to that disease. So Billings said the district is focusing its efforts on prevention, talking to employees about weight loss and sending educational information to employees with the disease.
"What I struggle with is that the first person to sign up for a program like this is always a healthy person," Billings said. "I'm looking at how to give incentives to people who don't want to make a change."
The Apex Award is given by UnitedHealth Group. A judging panel composed of people from across the health care industry selected the winners based on employers' innovative approaches to a specific health care challenge.
This year's judges praised Mesa schools' wellness efforts as "an exceptional cost-efficient program" that is "data-driven" and "will benefit school employees, students and families."
"Mesa Public Schools has developed a comprehensive wellness program that demonstrates a true commitment to improving its employees' quality of life while reducing health care costs," said Benton Davis, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Arizona, in a statement acknowledging the award.