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Disruptive Innovators: CEO Champions

When Steve Woods' wife was pregnant, he put on what he calls "sympathy weight." That was a dozen years ago. "She went back to her svelte, in-shape figure and I've maintained the sympathy weight," he said.

Once an athlete for whom four or five hours a day playing basketball was normal, the former sports agent turned chief executive officer has committed himself to losing 50 pounds as part of a program created to get a whole community healthier and save on healthcare costs.

Called CEO Champions, the program is the brainchild of Nancy Morris, a vivacious communications and member services director at Maine Health Management Coalition (MHMC), a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to improving the quality and value of healthcare.

The program's purpose is to transform how society values health and wellness. Believing that it takes leadership from the top to institute that sort of cultural change, Morris reached out to local business and civic leaders in southern Maine. 

"I picked people I thought would be able to assist others," she said. "I really looked for something they could bring to the table ... tools or resources or experience or knowledge that they had that they could offer to the others."

Set up as a team competition, the leaders and their organizations are competing against each other to create the healthiest, most wellness friendly workplace. Using the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) Scorecard evaluation, they will be judged on the how much improvement their organizations achieve over the course of a year. They'll also get points for assisting each other.

Each competitor has agreed to institute a wellness program at their place of business, find and mentor another leader in the second year of the program and provide financial assistance to a school's wellness program.

In their efforts to best each other, the CEO Champions have the assistance of a wellness coordinator, Phil DiRusso, who is helping each determine and set goals. 

Among those goals, DiRusso said, are to seek employee feedback  -  find out what employees want in a wellness program  -  and to figure out how to best engage employees in wellness programs.

Each company has goals tailored to its needs, DiRusso said. For instance, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, with 30 percent of its workforce telecommuters, is working on strategies to engage those remote workers.

In addition to meeting his personal weight loss goals, Steve Woods' company, TideSmart Global, one of the smaller companies in the CEO Champions program, is building a wellness program from scratch. Using the program as an impetus to fast forward plans talked about at the company, TideSmart has recently added a fitness room in the basement of the company's headquarters and plans on creating a walking/running track and a hydroponic garden on its six-acre campus.

The essential ingredient of the CEO Champions program, Morris said, are the leaders of the organizations. If something is important to the company's CEO, then it has a better chance of succeeding, she said, and the leaders participating in the program agree.

"Leadership matters," said Danielle Ripich, PhD, president of the University of New England. "What I have found is that things I pay attention to people tend to pay attention to. It just matters. ... So if I lay out a challenge, the people are pretty responsive. They see the value in it. So I think the idea of having the CEOs lead it was smart on (MHMC's) part."

As a CEO Champions participant, Ripich said one of the university's goals is keeping down the costs of healthcare. The university covers 90 percent of employees' healthcare insurance premiums. 

Ripich has already glimpsed the financial impact wellness programs can have. The university's healthcare insurance provider returned to the university $278,000 last year for underutilization of the plan. She credits the few wellness opportunities the university already has in place  -  including a walking path, a smoking cessation program and healthy dining choices  -  for the reimbursement

"It showed me the value of hiring yoga instructors and having different kinds of programs  -  weight management, stress management  -  all of that  -  because if it keeps people healthier than those are student tuition dollars we can use for other things." 

Steve Woods has no doubt that participating in the CEO Champions will have financial benefits. He, like Ripich, has seen the financial reward to businesses that offer health and wellness programs for their employees.

One of the businesses in the TideSmart portfolio is Promerica Health, a business specializing in creating mobile health programs and health screenings for companies across the country. Woods said the companies he works with through Promerica Health see a 5:1 return on investment when they engage their employees on health and wellness.

In Woods' eyes, the CEO Champions program won't just bring about better health and wellness for his employees  -  or prod him to lose his "sympathy weight." By demonstrating that healthcare and conversations about healthcare can be fun, it changes the tone of the healthcare conversation.

"... so much of our dialogue (around healthcare) in the last couple of years has been connected to the negativity of budgets," he said, "connected to public policy and the Affordable Care Act ... health and wellness should be a positive thing."