A Northeast Ohio hospital has found a cure for its own rising health-care bills.

Southwest General Health Center President and Chief Executive Thomas A. Selden credits an aggressive wellness program tied to financial incentives for helping control his hospital’s employee health benefit costs.

The hospital in Middleburg Heights won’t have a premium increase in 2013, Selden said.

In Northeast Ohio, initial increases to renew annual health coverage are trending 10 to 12 percent, which is being reduced to between 6 and 8 percent through negotiations and benefit changes, according to national consulting firm Mercer.

“We’ve been on a three-year journey in wellness and it has resulted this year in us having a zero increase,” said Selden, an Akron resident.

The hospital has been working with Bravo Wellness LLC in Avon to help run its employee wellness incentive program.

Akron General Health System and Summa Health System in Akron also started offering financial incentives this year to workers who meet healthy goals through programs they run with Bravo Wellness.

According to a recent survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, about 21 percent of employers are offering a discount off the employees’ share of insurance premiums to workers who complete a health-risk assessment. About 20 percent offer discounts to workers who don’t use tobacco products.

The increasingly common programs still face criticism from worker issue advocacy groups, which say it’s unfair for two workers doing the same job to get different compensation packages based on their weight or smoking habits.

Since 2011, employees at Southwest General have been able to earn discount points off their share of the health-care premium based on meeting targets for body-mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar and for not smoking.

If employees earn the maximum points, they pay $23.86 for individual coverage per biweekly pay — a discount of $127.39, according to hospital spokeswoman Caroline Fienga.

“The financial incentive is important to making this work,” Selden said. “They don’t have to participate. However, there is a big penalty for asking for our insurance and not taking the screening.”

To help employees meet the targets, the hospital offers quit-smoking classes, health coaching, weight loss support, free diabetes education and healthful meals in the cafeteria that are priced lower than less healthful options, Selden said. Starting next year, employees who join the hospital’s fitness center can get $20 back in their paycheck if they exercise at the facility at least eight times per month.

“We have all kinds of wellness initiatives we do to help employees get healthy,” Selden said. “Eat right and exercise — those are the keys to everything.”

Southwest General spends about $14 million annually to pay for prescription and medical costs for its more than 2,000 employees and their dependents. The hospital previously had been averaging increases in health benefit costs ranging from 6 percent to 7 percent — or between $800,000 to $1 million.

“I worry about my employees and their wellness and I worry about the cost of providing benefits to them,” Selden said. “If we can be an example to the community, that’s just an added bonus.”

Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or cpowell@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.