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Workers' wellness saving jobs in parks, policing, transit

King County Executive Dow Constantine and nine county employees who've been getting healthier.
Keith Seinfeld
King County Executive Dow Constantine and nine county employees who've been getting healthier.

King County Executive Dow Constantine says he’ll be able to preserve as many as a dozen sheriff’s deputies and 20 public health nurses. That’s because King County employees have been improving their health – and saving taxpayers about $23 million this year.

The savings go back into the county’s budget, and will mean fewer cuts next year.

The results comes from an aggressive program to cut health-care spending launched five years ago under former county executive Ron Sims. The aim was to get workers to take better care of themselves.

"At a time when the cost of health care everywhere in this country is spiraling up, our employees are managing their own health and bending the curve toward affordability," said Constantine.

Two coordinated steps are making the biggest difference. One is a cost-shift: County employees are paying higher copays and deductibles – similar to what private sector workers are facing. The other step was more unusual and is garnering national attention: About 80% of King County’s 13,000 employees are fulfilling a personalized wellness plan, in exchange for paying smaller copays and deductibles.  

For example, more than 2,000 workers lost enough weight and kept it off to affect their medical bills. Hundreds quit smoking.

Better health, cheaper plans

Other savings came from workers who voluntarily shifted to a less expensive Group Health plan, instead of using a preferred provider network.

Independent consultant Mikel Gray, from Mercer Health and Benefits, says King County’s example is being touted to other employers looking for ways to trim costs. 

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.