I recently attended a celebration meeting of the Micro-Wellness Project for Small Businesses, to acknowledge their first year of work, which is partially funded by MeHAF. This group is forging ahead with something that many would say isn't possible: providing comprehensive worksite wellness for rural micro-businesses.
Why is this important? In Maine, about 64% of private businesses have 4 or fewer employees and 20% of workers are in businesses smaller than 10 employees.
What's a Somerset County micro-business? A law firm, a greenhouse, a printing shop, a grist mill, the local hospice volunteer organization. Some have only one or two full-time employees. All have a strong belief in the importance of healthy employees as an important element of business success. Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative, the local Healthy Maine Partnership, has teamed up with Medical Care Development and the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce Wellness Council with support from Redington-Fairview General Hospital. Their aim is to create a virtual wellness program for these small businesses and to provide incentives similar to those enjoyed by larger businesses as part of insurance coverage and tax credits as proposed in the federal Affordable Care Act. The incentives and tax credits will be funded through grant funds, with a long-term goal of making a case that insurers could support such incentives even for small businesses.
By taking advantage of centralized, shared resources such as wellness coaches, model policies, and health risk appraisals, micro-businesses can offer customized wellness programs to their employees that might otherwise never have access to such programs. In an initial assessment, 76% of employees surveyed for this project said they would like worksite wellness opportunities, but only 10% indicated they had any such resources available to them. If the Micro-Wellness project is successful, it's a model that can be shared across the state and perhaps across the country.
As project co-director Bill Primmerman said, "We've got to stop putting all of our resources into treating people who are sick or whose health has already declined. It's time to help people get and stay healthy. And it takes our whole community working together to do this successfully."
Some background information: Somerset County stretches from Fairfield, which is next to Waterville, all the way up to Jackman, near the Canadian border. The county, which is nearly 4 times the size of the state of Rhode Island, and over half the size of Massachusetts, is home to a little more than 52,000 people. The Kennebec and Dead Rivers used to be major economic drivers in the county, but not anymore. While a few large employers like Sappi Fine Paper, New Balance, and Backyard Farms are located in the county, mills, shoe factories and tanneries have mostly departed, leaving behind a patchwork of small businesses scattered in Skowhegan, Madison, Norridgewock, The Forks, and other small towns along Routes 201 and 2.
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