A focus on wellness, a staff that's conscientious in shopping for health care, and a tough stance in negotiations with insurers have reaped cost benefits for the Johnstown-Monroe school district.

A focus on wellness, a staff that's conscientious in shopping for health care, and a tough stance in negotiations with insurers have reaped cost benefits for the Johnstown-Monroe school district.

That, at least, is what J-M treasurer Tammy Woods is guessing as she discusses the fact that the district has had zero percent increases in its plan costs for five years running - while elsewhere, double-digit percentage increases have been common in recent years.

"I don't know that I honestly know the answer, other than we've been a healthy group for awhile," said Treasurer Tammy Woods. "That's probably the biggest contributor. But we also initiated a wellness program a year before the school employee health care board required it to be done.

"We've been doing wellness assessments for a couple of years, and we have a wellness committee of staff members and people interest in keeping rates low and being healthy. They've started a few walking clubs on their own initiative and things like that."

The district also hires a company to come to a two-day teacher orientation to give staff screenings of basic health data, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. The data is reported to the staff, but not to the district or the insurance company.

"We bring a company on site to do biometric health screenings," Woods said. "They do screenings about eating habits, exercise habits, do you wear a seat belt, do you smoke. Those results go only to staff, not to the district or to the insurance company. We don't get any of that. We do get aggregate reports, so we can say, maybe we need something for people with high blood pressure. If you have this condition, here's something you can do."

Another factor is that the district is aggressive in ensuring its covered employees use the lower-cost network of service providers, rather than leaving the network where the costs increase.

"We approach the high 90 percent range of staying within our network," Woods said. "If you do that, you keep your rates down. And on the flip side, we've attempted to make sure the doctors our people use are in the network. We've reached out to them and we've had a few doctors being willing to join the network."

Part of it is simple claims history, too.

"A good part of where we are is luck," Woods said. "We have been healthy. Now, is that lifestyle choices of our staff? Sure. Is it the wellness program helping people know what their numbers are? Sure. Is it staff stepping up and calling hospitals and choosing a cheaper one? Sure."

Yet another factor is simply negotiating strength: Companies have tried to raise the rates, and Woods has said no.

"The premiums we are paying are profitable enough for our insurance company to be able to give us the rates they're giving us," Woods said. "And we negotiate. There have been years where they have come to us with increases and I've said, you know what, we'll go somewhere else, because I know what our claims history is."

Claims histories are given only to employers with a sufficiently large number of employees - more than 100 - and Johnstown Monroe qualifies with 150. This gives the district information it can use to affect costs.

"I'm not opposed to shopping every year if I have to," Woods said. "We've had the same carrier for two years. We quote out everything we do here, from trash to paper, and health care is no different."
Woods said employees shop for price, too, which she encourages.

"A lot of it goes to personal responsibility," Woods said. "Our employees are excellent at saying, if I'm on this medication, do you have a generic? Every time we have a staff meeting I tell them thank you for that, because that's as powerful as negotiating with a broker."