Target Pushing Employees to Live Healthier and Save It Money

Last Updated Sep 12, 2009 3:27 PM EDT

A newly launched Target program promises to improve employee health â€" and should aid in cutting the company's healthcare costs â€" but has been developed in such a way as encourage workers to coax others into the retailer's growing wellness circle.

The retailer calls the program the Target Live Well Challenge, and it is based on participation in an initiative dubbed MD Health Evolution. The centerpiece of that is a web site developed to help visitors make lifestyle changes that improve health and well-being. The 12-week MD Health Evolution course helps participants understand how to alter behaviors that impair and to encourage them to pursue practices that potentially improve health outcomes.

Target is offering free access to the site not only to its Minnesota employees but also to one designated "friend."

Target's program is consistent with moves it has made to develop a wellness culture within the corporation. It is a member of the Alliance to Make US Healthiest, a group that describes itself as "a non-partisan organization that facilitates partnerships between national and grassroots efforts, fosters innovative actions, and connects individuals to spark a nationwide social movement to make the U.S. the healthiest nation in a healthier world." Its board includes health services and insurance executives, representatives of governmental organizations and John Mulligan, vp strategic services at Target as well as Sarah Clark, vp benefits communications and outreach, Walmart Stores.

Target characterized its Live Well Challenge as one element in a larger effort to build a healthier corporation, healthier communities and a healthier nation. And just so you don't think Target is trying to appear too altruistic, Jodee Kozlak, Target executive vp of human resources, said of the program, "We firmly believe that healthy team members create a more successful business and vibrant communities. We want all team members and their families to focus on prevention, the key to access and affordability."

Keep in mind this effort is consistent with what Safeway helped install in California as part of its negotiations, joined by Kroger and Supervalu, with workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The program eventually accepted by the UFCWU and its members there changed union employee medical benefits in a manner designed also to hold down health care costs through installation of market-driven mechanisms and placing more responsibility for wellness maintenance on employees. Other retailers are increasingly looking to change how they provide health benefits, with Meijer, for example, instituting a different contribution structure for smokers and non-smokers as part of its benefits package. Of course, Walmart went so far as to break with the retail industry in support of healthcare reform. Target certainly isn't going that far but, with its program and participation in healthy living organizations, evidently wants to be among those near, if not at, the forefront of change in its approach to healthcare.

Retail takes a beating from critics about the healthcare plans it offers workers but retail organizations, designed to engage consumers frequently without adding so much cost that each transaction becomes prohibitively expensive, can't match industrial companies, which engage consumers only occasionally and often on the basis of a credit arrangement, in terms of the benefits costs they can bear. So retail is being forced to innovate -- even within the scope off what it offers to customers, employees among them, including additional pharmacy services, designated low-cost and free prescription medications, and retail clinic operations -- as it confronts healthcare costs. Given the size and visibility of major retail organizations, that can't help but have an impact on the direction healthcare will take in the larger society.