Data on rising insurance costs that continue to climb locally, along with the number of “chronically or catastrophically ill” government employees and their dependents, are driving a new wellness initiative that Gov. Kenneth Mapp outlined at a press conference Tuesday after his recent return from a Biggest Loser Resort in California.
Mapp, who has been off-island for the last two weeks, said that along with meeting with officials from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for discussions on the territory’s overall health issues, he was able to work through the Biggest Loser program and help develop – along with the territory’s Health commissioner and the two new members of the V.I. health Insurance board that also went on the trip – a plan for a health and wellness curriculum for the territory.
Mapp said partnering with local doctors to educate patients, introducing more fresh fruits and vegetables into public programs and facilities, and developing outside infrastructure, such as walking and bike trails, is all in the works.
“Over the next weeks and months, you will see the government and community start having a bigger discussion on wellness and wellness choices,” Mapp said, adding that the Biggest Loser program would generate tourism dollars through additional partnerships with hotels chains such as Marriott, which already function as Biggest Loser sites for participants who want to work through the program.
According to the data, Mapp said that the current government insurance plan supports approximately 11,000 employees along with their dependent children, spouses and retirees for a total of approximately 26,000 people whose premiums cost the government $116 million this year. Mapp estimated that those costs could climb to more than $200 million within the next two years, or 28 percent of General Fund revenues.
“That would simply be a plan that we could not afford to pay,” he said. “At that point, we would have to determine what level of benefits would be reduced or what increases could be absorbed to ensure coverage.”
One of the “realities” that officials have found in reviewing the insurance plan is that the government is “predominantly” purchasing insurance for people that are sick, including 300 “drivers” that cost upward of $600,000 a year, Mapp said. Of the 11,000 workers on the plan, 75 percent or a little more than 7,000 have a “catastrophic or chronic disease,” while another 35 percent is struggling with hypertension, 22 percent with diabetes, or another set with a multitude of issues including renal failure and cancer, he added.
“On this trajectory, we will eventually run out of money to cover our employees,” Mapp said.
The governor discussed bringing down the numbers by setting up low-cost wellness centers on St. Thomas and St. Croix where employees and community members could go, exercise and receiving nutritional guidance.
Discussions with the CDC revealed that overall, “gyms don’t work,” and that the second part of the plan would be investments in parks, better streets and roads, sidewalks and bike trails where “people could take advantage of movement,” Mapp added. Additionally, on upcoming negotiations with CIGNA, the government’s health insurance provider, the government will look at negotiating reimbursement costs for those individuals who want to participate in programs such as the Biggest Loser, which Mapp said other companies abroad have already started to do.
Mapp added that his health trip – except for the airline ticket and one night’s stay – was not paid for by the V.I. government. He also said that after returning from the trip, he has ordered the Government House staff to remove all carbonated beverages from the grounds, along with any bowls of candy in the offices, and to include more fresh fruits and veggies on the menu for functions.