KC wellness plan scam taints hundreds of city workers
The Kansas City Star
The sickness that plagued Kansas City’s employee wellness program allegedly was spread not just by a few people but by hundreds of city workers.
That appalling possibility indicates City Hall contains a large number of people who tried to game the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City system to make some easy money for themselves — without doing the work needed to get healthier and truly earn those rewards.
Federal authorities last week charged six Kansas City workers — and one Jackson County public employee — with defrauding the “Points to Blue” program out of more than $310,000 in cash incentives in 2010 and 2011. Public funds were not stolen.
City Manager Troy Schulte emphasized in an initial press release that only a “small group of city employees” had been charged and that “these alleged actions do not represent the majority of city employees who adhere to the city’s ethical standards.”
However, that attempt to minimize the damage of the scandal was misplaced.
In fact, the indictment says the public employees charged in the scheme were able to wrack up large amounts of benefits by logging into the Blue Cross site with information supplied by many other city employees.
The defendants reportedly would use the co-workers’ login information, submit bogus activities such as running marathons or participating in triathlons, get the gift or debit reward cards worth up to $250 each, then share some of those spoils with their coworkers.
When pressed by The Star in an interview this week, Schulte took an appropriately tough position on the activities that allegedly occurred — not by just those charged with crimes but also by the hundreds of other city workers who may have helped them.
“It’s theft,” he said, if an employee knew fraudulent information was being presented to Blue Cross.
Schulte said the city would work with federal officials to see if it could get more information on the employees who were involved in the alleged scheme but were not charged — at least yet — in court. The city then could decide how it would punish its workers.
These aren’t the kind of employees Mayor Sly James and Schulte want front and center as the city attempts to improve its public image, and as it tries to establish more professional and efficient ways to report problems to City Hall and get them resolved.
Schulte vowed the city “is not going to let this rest.” Nor should it. The wellness scandal has given the city a black eye.
Moving forward, Kansas City must find good ways to continue a program that encourages its employees to participate in activities that can make them healthier. They include quitting smoking, getting annual physicals and taking part in health screenings.
Health care costs are onerous. This year the city will pay $75 million for health insurance for more than 7,000 city employees and more than 10,000 members of their families, with most of that amount coming from taxpayers.
Unfortunately, the city’s participation rate in the current wellness program is shockingly low, below 10 percent of workers. Schulte said the city was looking at incentives that would increase that rate. That could include giving employees a break on health insurance premiums.
Schulte, James and others must help City Hall heal itself from this blow. Punishing wayward employees is part of the solution. But putting in place a better wellness program that encourages more legitimate participation from employees would be the best medicine.