BOSTON (State House News Service) - Massachusetts has joined Indiana as one of two states now offering tax discounts to companies for providing their workers with ways to get in better shape.
"We feel like this is going to be a pilot year. We'll learn an awful lot about this. The state of Indiana is the only other state that's implemented a wellness tax credit, and over a four-year period only 114 businesses applied," Bureau of Community Health and Prevention Director Cheryl Bartlett told the Public Health Council on Wednesday morning.
The council approved emergency regulations for the new tax credit on Wednesday. The tax credits were included in last year's omnibus health care cost control law. The state made the regulations emergency in nature because the tax credits portion of the law went into effect on Jan. 1.
Bartlett said that the Department of Public Health will consider any business with 500 or fewer employees, most of whom live in Massachusetts, eligible for the tax credit. The DPH would give "preference" to businesses with 100 or fewer employees, Bartlett said.
The tax credit will offer incentives equal to 25 percent of the wellness programs cost in an amount of up to $10,000 per company. There is an annual cap of $15 million, and businesses would need to be certified every year, according to Bartlett's presentation.
The wellness programs should be geared toward particular health issues faced by employees working at a particular company, so while smoking cessation is an acceptable wellness program, it would not qualify if only a very small percentage of workers smoked, Bartlett said.
Interim Commissioner of Public Health Lauren Smith wanted to be sure that outreach about the program would extend beyond briefings to chambers of commerce.
"Are there places to go where you can target business, small businesses, but especially businesses that have employees who may not have English as their first language?" Smith asked. She said, "I know you recognize that that's in alignment with other strategic priorities that the department has."
DPH deputy general counsel Peggy Wiesenberg said that a professor from UMass Lowell had raised similar concerns and would likely be involved in outreach.
"I'm sure that the program will be working with her and others to reach those populations," Wiesenberg said.
Council member Paul Lanzikos, who is executive director of North Shore Elder Services, said he was disappointed that the tax incentive means there is no monetary encouragement for tax-free non-profits.
"Often times it's the not-for-profits that would take the lead in sponsoring initiatives like this," Lanzikos told the News Service. During the meeting, he said the fact that non-profits are left out is a "significant lapse."
Board member Meredith Rosenthal said that the wellness programs could be a source of data to tell economists such as herself what works best.
"I know that the statute begins with the premise that wellness programs save money. Having studied this I know that that's not altogether clear," said Rosenthal.
Bartlett said asking participants to submit data would be "pretty complicated and might be a deterrent."