Somerset County will be part of a two-year program to improve worker health from Fairfield to Jackman.

The county, one of seven picked nationally, was chosen in part because of its high rate of diabetes and heart and respiratory disease.

The National Healthy Worksite Program is seeking to not only improve health, but to increase productivity and reduce health care costs, according to the program’s community director in Somerset County, Danielle Louder.

She is looking across the county for employers with fewer than 500 employees that want health coaching services provided at no cost during the next two years. Fifteen local sites will be chosen by the end of April and work will begin in May.

The $8 million program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, administered by Viridian Health Management, is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The deadline for employers to sign up is Friday Louder said, though it may be extended.

The percentage of many chronic diseases in the county is above the state average and fifteen percent of Somerset County residents have three or more chronic conditions, according to the OneMaine Health Collaborative’s Statewide Community Health Needs Assessment, published in the spring of 2011.

That is “a daunting statistic,” according to Bill Primmerman, program director at the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative. “The majority of these chronic conditions are linked to three preventable risk factors: tobacco use, lack of physical activity and poor nutritional choices.”

In Somerset County, 11 percent of workers missed 11 or more days of work because of poor health in the last month, compared to 8 percent statewide, according to the health report.

And 26 percent of people in the county, compared to 21 percent statewide, reported having a sedentary lifestyle.

Compared to the state as a whole, county residents also have a higher prevalence of hypertension, respiratory disease, cancer and unmet mental health needs, and more people are considered at-risk for depression.

Out of all counties in Maine, it has the highest emergency room visit rate and infant mortality rate.

Somerset County was also chosen for the program because it has the infrastructure — including a hospital and local health groups — needed to support worksite wellness programs, Louder said.

Karen Hawkes, director of Healthy Sebasticook Valley in Pittsfield, said, “There is no doubt that our health issues are challenging, but Somerset County is filled with can-do people.”

The goal of the program, tailored for each local business, nonprofit organization or school district, is to both improve people’s health now and prevent them from developing health problems in the future, Louder said.

Health problems like heart disease and diabetes take a “huge toll on both our local economy and our national economy” Louder said. “It’s a huge quality of life burden, and most of the chronic diseases are preventable if we can improve our nutrition.”

Employee wellness programs save $3 in medical costs for every $1 invested, according to the Florida consulting firm Workplace Wellness Corp.

Under the program, employees could have their blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose screened. A couple of full-time health coaches — likely to be hired from the county — would identify specific ways employees could improve their health, and they would work with employers to introduce healthier policy changes, whether they include incentives for people to exercise or eat more nutritious food.

Somerset County Jail Administrator Major David Allen said the jail, which has 80 county employees and 20 contract employees, is applying to participate. Healthier workers are happier and they have a decreased chance of getting injured, he said.

“I can’t imagine anybody that wouldn’t want to do it,” he said.

Karen Hart, assistant vice president of marketing at Skowhegan Savings Bank, said the bank is also applying.

The bank was already looking for a wellness program for its 117 employees and jumped at the opportunity to possibly have one at no cost, she said.

“A healthier employee is definitely a more productive employee,” she said.

In order to be selected, employers must offer health care coverage, must allow workers to participate in health-related programs during work hours and must not have a workplace wellness program.

Employers with more than 500 full-time employees can participate, but they must invest $50,000 over two years. Louder said the money doesn’t pay the program; rather it must be used in ways that encourage healthy living among employees.

In addition to Somerset County, the program is being spearheaded in counties in Tennessee, Indiana, Texas, Missouri, California and Washington.

More information is available at www.cdc.gov/nationalhealthyworksite. Louder said any firm interested in the program may contact her at [email protected]

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]