Next May, three employees of C&K Market  and their guests will be flown to Los Angeles to join a live studio audience for the season finale of NBC’s popular reality series, “The Biggest Loser.”
The trio was awarded the trip because they too are losers — but in a way that merits a reward. They were the winners of the independent retailer’s own weight loss contest, in which more than 550 participants shed in excess of 4,000 pounds.
“We’re really trying to change the culture around fitness and getting people moving,” said Kate Wilkinson, C&K’s corporate counsel and director of human resources.
The Biggest Loser competition is one of a handful of creative strategies the 65-store, Brookings, Ore.-based chain is pursuing in an ongoing effort to control health care costs. In 2009 C&K was facing double-digit increases to cover 1,000 employees, as well as an additional 1,200 family members, on the retailer’s health plan.
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Alan Nidiffer, executive vice president and grandson of C&K founder Ray Nidiffer, said the goal was simple, but elusive: Retain benefits while minimizing the financial impact on employees.
“We’re a private company, family-owned,” he said. “We don’t want to cut benefits and we don’t want to raise premiums.”
Faced with spiraling expenses, the retailer convened a special committee of 15 employees from across the company — executives, store managers and office personnel, among others — and charged them with finding ways to shift the focus from treatment to prevention.
“This group of folks came up with a wonderful set of recommendations that we today call our Healthy Choices program,” said Nidiffer.
In the three years since it was created, Healthy Choices has maintained costs at 2009 levels. The self-funded program cherry-picked elements of other companies’ plans (including Safeway, winner of the 2012 SN Whole Health Enterprise Award for excellence in health and wellness marketing); other components were the result of brainstorming sessions conducted by the committee.
The cornerstone of Healthy Choices is a biometric screening for all employees, regardless of health plan participation. Here, tests measure critical wellness factors such as body mass index, glucose, cholesterol, tobacco use and blood pressure. For each test passed, employees receive wellness credits. Depending upon the type of health coverage chosen, employees can receive up to $600 per year toward reduced premiums or as additional employer contributions to the person’s Health Savings Account.
The retailer offers three benefit plans — a low-deductible PPO, or two higher-deductible plans. C&K pre-funds HSAs for those choosing the more expensive options, up to a set amount. The contributions have helped steer nearly half of participating employees into choosing the higher-deductible plans.
Expanding Medical Care Access
A second key aspect of the retailer’s health care platform seeks to address costs associated with its mostly rural market area. Many employees didn’t have easy access to immediate medical care, and were using hospital emergency rooms for basic services.
“We do business in a lot of smaller, rural areas and access to health care is an issue,” said Nidiffer. “One of the biggest expenses we saw were ER visits, which are very costly.”
C&K’s Medical Home program remedies this situation by recruiting primary care physicians in the region and placing them on a retainer, of sorts. In return for an annual fee, plus any applicable co-pays, these doctors agree to see participating C&K employees on a same-day basis and to encourage preventative exams like physicals and mammograms, which are free. Currently more than 300 employees participate in the Medical Home plan, cared for by more than 400 doctors.
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One of the most creative elements of Healthy Choices is the new Helping Hands fund. Seeded with $10,000 donated by C&K, the financial aid program is available to any store associate facing hardship or extended illness. Applicants complete a simple, one-page questionnaire that is reviewed by a five-person panel. Most awards to date have averaged less than $1,000.
“In this economy many people are living close to the line, and if you miss a week of work that’s really are going to set you back,” said Christi Loring, C&K’s benefits director.
C&K has promised to match employee contributions up to $50,000 per year. Posters tacked up in break rooms are promoting the fund and urge employees to voluntarily donate a few dollars per week to the effort.
“What we’re trying to get people to do is a direct debit of something like $2 a paycheck,” said Loring. “Our message has been that if everyone throws in $2, that works out to $200,000 a year. The point is that, if we all chip in a little, we can do a lot.”
Helping Hands has become popular. Just recently, the panel approved a request from a relatively new employee who had burned herself while working at one of the stores. Workers’ compensation covered her treatment, but the employee still faced a financial challenge from being out of work.
“She came to us and said she was in danger of losing her housing because she would be missing a number of days at work,” said Loring. “It was a relatively small amount just so she could get through the rest of the month.”
Healthy Choices gets further support from a printed monthly newsletter that follows a theme, and includes coupons for healthful foods and information on free health services in each market area. Nidiffer said the entire effort has empowered employees to take charge of their own health, with visible results.
“We’ve actually seen an improvement in the overall level of health with our employees,” he said.
Sidebar: Walking to London
This summer, employees at C&K Markets followed the Olympic torch and walked the equivalent of 38,000 miles to London.
Participating employees were given pedometers that tracked the number of steps they took every day. And in true Olympic fashion, impromptu contests broke out among competing stores.
“I remember the meat manager at our local store here telling me he walked 12,000 steps one day,” recalled Alan Nidiffer, C&K’s executive vice president. “A lot of people get behind it.”
The London walk was so successful, the retailer plans to create similar treks every other month. Currently, employees are walking from Oregon to the Florida Everglades, and more exotic locales are planned for the cold winter months, said Kate Wilkinson corporate counsel and director of human resources.
“In January, we’re planning on walking around the Hawaiian Islands.”
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