LARGO — During a presentation to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s incoming human resources director this spring, Dr. William Blackshear highlighted an employee who had lost nearly 80 pounds through his 16-week weight-loss program.
The employee, a 65-year-old man, went from 291 pounds to 215 pounds in less than four months. That’s nearly five pounds a week.
Blackshear’s Prescription Weight Loss Clinic is one of two weight-loss clinics the sheriff’s office has contracted with since 2011 as part of an effort to slim down the people on its health plan — deputies, clerks, administrators, retirees, along with their dependents.
“We had a lot of overweight people,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “We had a big problem and a lot of people got on it right away.”
Gualtieri’s is the only large law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay area making such an effort with obese or overweight employees.
While many law enforcement and government agencies offer weight management as part of their wellness programs, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is somewhat of a trail-blazer by paying for people to go through weight-loss programs. The sheriff’s office has spent millions since it started providing the benefit in 2011 but has saved millions more in health care claims.
Like many government agencies in the Tampa Bay area, the sheriff’s office is self-insured. That means it manages its own health plan, deciding how to spend money in order to bring down annual claims and keep employees’ premiums reasonable.
Some local governments, including the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, which are also self-insured, have opened wellness clinics that provide basic health care services and encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles. Public- and private-sector employers also sponsor special events designed to encourage healthy habits, such as a walking competition in Tampa this year where city employees tracked their steps with pedometers. Then there’s the occasional nutrition class, where weight loss is discussed. But a sampling of other area governments, including the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, show they don’t offer a separate weight-loss initiative.
The City of St. Petersburg once subsidized a Weight Watchers program, but it was dropped because of low participation, said Vicki Grant, the city’s benefits manager. Only 16 city employees took part.
By comparison, 1,128 out of roughly 6,000 eligible people have taken advantage of the sheriff’s office weight loss initiative, Gualtieri said.
So far, the results have been impressive.
A total of roughly 27,000 pounds was lost from February 2011 to February 2012, according to the most recent statistics available, the sheriff said.
At César A. Lara Weight Management, the other weight loss clinic contracted by the sheriff’s office, a group of employees collectively recorded a 23-percent drop in a prediabetic condition known as insulin resistance, Gualtieri said.
Cholesterol levels for the group dropped too. Initially, 47 percent of the participants had unacceptable levels, but that dropped to 15 percent, the sheriff said.
Claims have dropped significantly, too, though it’s too early to say how much the weight-loss programs have contributed.
After cresting in Fiscal Year 2009 at $35.6 million, claims dropped to $34.1 million the following fiscal year and to $28.1 million in Fiscal Year 2011. Figures weren’t available for Fiscal Year 2012.
“It’s almost a no-brainer for them to do a program like this,” Blackshear said.
Soaring claims was how the sheriff’s office started focusing on weight loss.
Claims jumped from $29.5 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to $35.6 million in Fiscal Year 2009, Gualtieri said. Administrators decided they had to do something.
“You can’t sit on your hands,” Gualtieri said.
In 2010, the agency turned to Life Scan in Tampa, which conducts a bevy of tests not normally performed at a physician’s office, such as ultrasound scans of a person’s bladder and kidneys.
The idea was to catch and treat diseases early, before they worsened and became costly to treat or endangered people’s health. Life Scan identified numerous previously unidentified conditions, including cancers, heart problems, blocked arteries, diabetes and brain tumors.
“At the same time, we’re seeing a lot of obesity and we know obesity causes health problems,” Gualtieri said.
The obesity was especially apparent with deputies, he said.
Deputies are generally motivated to stay fit; but on patrol, they are inactive for long periods of time, and when they do eat, they are likely to eat fast food on the run, Blackshear said.
Rather than force employees to lose weight with a carrot-and-stick approach, which carries the threat of punishment, sheriff’s office administrators decided to make available two weight loss clinics, Gualtieri said.
At Blackshear’s clinic, sheriff’s office employees get a 15-percent discount. When they started participating, the cost for a new patient evaluation was $240, so a sheriff’s office employee received it for $204, Blackshear said. After that, there was a charge of $65 for each of a patient’s weekly visits, but that was discounted, too, to a weekly charge of $55.25.
The sheriff’s health plan picks up the entire tab.
In Fiscal Year 2011, for instance, the sheriff spent $1.9 million on weight loss programs and $985,000 the following fiscal year. Those costs are expected to continue to taper off over time, Gualtieri said.
“For the most part, the sheriff’s employees are pretty conscientious because they know someone is looking over their shoulder,” Blackshear said.