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NJ Health Insurer’s Wellness Program Targets Obesity, Health Literacy

A major New Jersey health insurance provider’s disease management program takes aim at obesity and can serve as a template for employers and educators nationwide.
Reacting to spiraling healthcare costs related to obesity, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield has created "Horizon Walks for Health," a wellness program designed to motivate and educate its participants. And, the campaign starts with Horizon’s own employees.

Dr. Eric Berman, medical director and chairman of health policy at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield in Newark, outlined the program during a recent audio conference "Disease Management and Obesity" sponsored by the Healthcare Intelligence Network (HIN).
HIN is an Internet-based provider of news and analysis for healthcare professionals. The audio conference was part of an ongoing series of information sessions on healthcare-related topics produced by HIN. The panel also included Robin Foust, population individual health and productivity management specialist from Zoe Consulting.
Sixty-five percent of Americans are either overweight or obese, Berman noted, and related annual healthcare costs associated with obesity can range from $117 to $230 billion nationwide.

The insurance plan partnered with the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association to develop the program, which stresses sound eating and the importance of daily exercise.

Posters advertising proper portion control and suggesting alternatives to a sedentary lifestyle (taking the stairs or parking further away from the school or office building, for example) are central to its educational campaign, as is a walking campaign urging everyone to incorporate 30 minutes of walking into their daily routines.

The health plan is spreading this message by giving away thousands of Horizon health kits — insulated lunch sacks containing a pedometer, food journal and other educational material — at community events and health fairs throughout the state. Horizon is also providing age- and culturally-appropriate materials to New Jersey schools on the importance of personal hygiene, food selection and exercising.

The program can be adapted to a particular community or population, Berman said. For example, one New Jersey school district gave the health kits to students with body image problems who were in danger of failing gym and, ultimately, school because they refused to change into gym clothes. The students used the pedometers to measure their walking programs and earn the required gym credits.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield is testing the effectiveness of the program with employees of AtlantiCare Health Plans, one of Horizon’s joint venture partners in south Jersey. The pilot program, introduced in 2003, incorporates a wellness program into the corporate culture.

"The whole concept is to try to create an environment that encourages people to take care of themselves, to raise their own awareness and to spend the time at work to do it," Berman explained. "It requires changing the environment and the culture in the organization. If you’re really going to have people buy into this, management really needs to set the pace and needs to encourage people."

Interested employees received individual health assessment sessions with a clinician before participating. The company mapped out an outdoor walking path, organized walking sessions throughout the day and created an indoor exercise room. Program organizers developed a newsletter, offered employee incentives such as discounts at sporting good stores and healthy restaurants, and created a database to track participants’ progress.

Nearly 98 percent of the site’s 123 employees participated, and the company has received positive feedback from participants.

Eight-one percent reported participating in the walking campaign at least three times per week, and 79 percent reported positive changes in portion control, calorie counting and reading nutritional information on food labels.

There were also positive results in the area of participants’ weight loss, Berman said. In particular, 25 of 48 participants who had been identified as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of greater than 25 (which classified them as overweight [a BMI of 25.0-29.9] or obese [ a BMI >/= 30.0]) had reduced their BMI and/or associated risk classification after nine months in the program.

The company is still analyzing the results of the program, Berman said, including the effect of the program on sick time.

Additionally, 15 employees have asked for a smoke cessation program. "Now that their awareness of weight loss has been raised, they are more health-conscious," Berman said. "They’re reducing their weight, and are now ready to move on to the next problem, which is smoking."

Horizon plans to introduce the same program at two other sites in New Jersey, and is hoping to offer this program to all of its employees by late
2004 or early 2005.
A recording of the audio conference that includes the speakers’
presentations is available on CD-ROM from HIN by calling 888-446-3530 or visiting HIN’s Web site at:

HIN is the first health content provider on the Internet to provide its online community of users including hospitals, managed care organizations and suppliers to the healthcare industry — with access to more than 45 of the nation’s leading healthcare publications, covering behavioral healthcare, compliance, disease management, e-health, HIPAA, managed care and regulation. Located at, HIN presents the most comprehensive source of news and analysis for healthcare professionals currently available in one place, in electronic form.

For more information on any of the features available at, contact the Healthcare Intelligence Network, PO Box 1442, Wall Township, NJ 07719-1442; (888) 446-3530, fax (732) 292-3073, e-mail,


Geared toward professionals working in the wellness and health field, the Professionals section of this site is where to look for proven, time-tested techniques in wellness program management. Not only will you get insight into solving problems you face every day in your field, but you will get in-depth details of programs at work in a variety of corporations, healthcare organizations and the public sector, and return on investment statistics to help prove your program's worth.

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