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Regulations relaxed for wellness programs

Workers could soon earn rewards of up to 30 percent of their healthcare coverage costs.

Health and wellness programs are increasingly becoming part of companies' long-term strategies for reducing medical costs, and now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working to make them more affordable for organizations.

The Hill reported that the federal government recently released new regulations designed to encourage participation in employer-based wellness programs. The initiative increases the maximum reward that companies can provide in employee incentive programs. Workers could soon earn rewards of up to 30 percent of their coverage costs, rather than the 20 percent currently allowed.

Businesses are utilizing wellness initiatives to reduce their overall healthcare expenses. A study by Mercer noted that the programs are the most common long-term strategy for controlling spending. Eighty-one percent of organizations expressed concerns that rising healthcare costs will impact their ongoing success.

"We've seen a huge spike in requests to help organizations obtain greater value from their benefits spend in 2012, with many finally acknowledging that unhealthy employee behaviors are driving their health benefits costs," said Rosaline Chow Koo, Mercer's Asia Pacific Employee Health and Benefits Leader.

Providing incentives for wellness program participation is a cost-effective way to ensure that employees are leading healthier lifestyles. Companies can utilize reward and recognition programs to encourage workers to stop smoking, join a gym or even visit the doctor regularly. These efforts have been shown to lower insurance costs and improve employee engagement.

Wellness programs don't need to be limited to the workplace. A common strategy in creating these initiatives is to reward participation in community programs, charity runs and other social initiatives designed around providing work-life balance. Participants are able to get exercise or relax in a fun environment outside of work, and often appreciate that their employers acknowledge their efforts to stay healthy.

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