12/27/2012 06:51 pm ET

San Francisco Health Care Plan May Start Paying Public Employees To Stay Healthy

In an effort to control the rising cost of employee health care, San Francisco is in the early stages of considering a program where city workers would receive extra pay for staying healthy.

As medical advances have allowed people to live longer with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, officials hope to promote healthy lifestyles that delay the onset of these conditions for as long as possible.

"We do have some control over the health status of our employees," Catherine Dodd, director of the San Francisco Heath Services System, told the San Francisco Examiner. "And that's the new focus on wellness."

Discussions about this type of program, similar to one that's already in place in Chicago, are still in the information-gathering stage. Leaders hope to design a global program that works for all of the city's over 20,000 employees, whose wellness needs vary widely depending on the type of job they perform. Keeping a gardener for the Recreation and Parks Department healthy, for example, will likely require a very different set of incentives than would be ideal for someone who drives a Muni bus all day.

The city already offers a number of wellness programs for its employees, from yoga and fitness classes to gym discounts to Weight Watchers. However, most of these occur at the level of individual departments, some of which have instituted more comprehensive plans than others. Last year, the San Francisco Business Times named one city agency, the San Francisco International Airport, the healthiest workplace in San Francisco.

While a recent study found San Francisco public employees to be significantly healthier than the American public at large, the city's personnel costs have been increasing to the tune of some $90 million each year. The renewed focus on wellness is part of a growing trend within the health care industry to increase the focus on preventative medicine. If more people are encouraged to be healthy, it's less likely they'll be forced to utilize increasingly expensive medical procedures in the future, thereby decreasing the city's premium costs.

In an editorial published earlier this month, the Examiner urged San Francisco to cut public employee health care costs as a way close the city's budget gap.