FARMINGTON — Select groups of state employees in Maine seem to have adopted healthier lifestyles because of a taxpayer-funded wellness program targeting obesity in the workplace, according to a health consultant reviewing the project.

The 300 men and women dropped 26 pounds on average and shed about five inches from their waistlines during the program’s first year, starting in the fall of 2008, according to consultant Sarah Levin Martin.

Early program results are promising, according to Martin, especially for people seeking an answer to the obesity problem in Maine and the rest of the country, which is spending billions of dollars annually to treat obesity-related diseases.

Martin, an epidemiologist in Farmington who studies health and illness problems, said she is looking to see if the people kept the weight off and if other groups of state workers on the program saw the same benefits.

A total of 900 state workers have participated in the ME FIRST Project, a taxpayer-funded program that gives certain Maine state employees free access to fitness and other health-care services targeting obesity, according to Frank Johnson, executive director of the state Office of Employee Health and Benefits.

The groups work with fitness trainers, nutritionists and other wellness coaches associated with MaineGeneral Medical Center, which won the $1.4 million contract to run the obesity project and a series of other fitness programs, Johnson said.

It’s still unclear how much the obesity program could save taxpayers by avoiding costs related to obesity in the workplace, Johnson said. The project review under way will be looking into workers’ compensation claims and other costs tied to obesity-related diseases, he said.

The contract for the fitness programs and obesity project will be put out to bid again this spring, Johnson said.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said programs that encourage preventive care and healthy lifestyles save taxpayers money in the end.

“All of us understand that to the extent health insurance programs encourage preventive care, healthy lifestyles and exercise that they ultimately save money,” Katz said of lawmakers.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, on which Katz serves, is reviewing state programs during the Legislature’s budget process. The committee is waiting for reports from state agencies before it discusses specific programs, he said.

“The state health insurance program is doing some innovative things in trying to (give incentives) for healthy behaviors among its members,” Katz said.

A total of 300 state workers were picked randomly each year from the large number of applicants for the ME First Project, Johnson said. The three groups are allowed to stay in the program for five-year periods to monitor their progress.

Johnson said the employees are from across the state. The programs are administered at MaineGeneral Medical Center facilities or through subcontracts at other sites.

Johnson said Martin’s work is part of a $65,518 contract recently awarded to study the program results. Martin is working in cooperation with University of Maine at Farmington, where she is an adjunct professor.

People are considered obese based on height and weight ratios used to calculate a body mass index, according to the Center fo Disease Control and Prevention website.

For example, someone who is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs more than 197 pounds is considered obese, according to a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute body mass index table on the website.

Finding a way to reverse the obesity epidemic should help avoid a “devastating” effect on health-care costs and the economy in the future, Martin said.

Government agencies and businesses are paying for studies because there is a cost associated with treating obesity-related diseases, for example, heart diseases and diabetes, according to Martin.

In 2008, medical costs nationwide tied to obesity totaled an estimated $147 billion, according to the CDC website. In 2009, most states, including Maine, had adult obesity rates between 20 to 29.9 percent, with nine states at 30 percent or above, according to the website.

Martin said the obesity project might be able to help lower these costs.

“It is one of the most successful programs I’ve seen and one of the most successful I’ve seen in Maine,” she said. “That’s our hope, that it can lower those costs, because a healthier workforce is so important.”

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

 

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