By Michael Barrett mbarrett@gastongazette.com

Beginning next year, Gastonia city employees will be asked to take part in a new program aimed at monitoring and improving their health.

And if they decline, they'll pay for it.

The expanded wellness initiative, approved by City Council members Tuesday, will encourage workers to go through a periodic biometric screening process. It will involve getting a "finger stick" to have blood work done, and having other measurements taken to monitor weight, blood pressure, body mass index, glucose levels, and the like.

A two-year contract the city has signed with CaroMont Health will also provide health education counseling for employees, as well as health risk assessments.

A "wellness program incentive clause" will be part of that new venture. Employees who choose not to participate in the health risk assessment program and biometric screening will have $20 per pay period deducted from their paychecks. The city will apply that $20 toward the cost of the employee's health insurance premium.

City Councilman David Kirlin, who chairs the city's Audit/Bids/Insurance Committee, said there was a lot of discussion about whether to apply such an incentive clause.Based on the best practices of other municipal wellness programs of similar size and complexity to Gastonia's, city leaders decided the 'insurance premium adjustment method' would be the most effective.

Only participation, not health improvement or performance, is what will matter. The idea is to get employees to become more receptive and inspired to live healthier lives, said Kirlin, who likened it to the classic 'carrot on a stick' incentive.

"That is to say, hey, all were going to ask of you is to fill out this questionnaire, get some blood work drawn, get your weight taken, and if you do that, youre good to go," he said. "If you dont, were going to ding your paycheck $20 every two weeks."

The new wellness program marks just the latest example of the city's efforts to lower its employee health care costs in the last decade.Gastonias health insurance costs were skyrocketing eight years ago when City Council members agreed to implement a wellness clinic in City Hall. It serves as a cheaper option for employees, who can pay $3 to see a licensed physicians assistant, rather than enduring a much pricier standard co-pay at a doctors office or minute clinic.

When the clinic debuted, a nurse practitioner on site could handle minor injuries, such as administering stitches, or writing prescriptions for colds, allergies or the like. As time went on, more services have been offered, such as biometric screenings for high cholesterol, and providing certain care for worker compensation claims.

The city is also negotiating discounted memberships for its employees at a number of local gyms, which will be available early next year. And as part of the new health initiative, other programs will be offered to get workers thinking about being more healthy. That will include 12 "lunch-and-learn" sessions hosted by local physicians each month, exercise classes, and targeted disease and wellness programs throughout the year.

You can reach Michael Barrett at 704-869-1826 or on Twitter @GazetteMike.