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Arkansas unveils health program for state workers

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NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas state employees can earn days off for quitting smoking, eating more fruits and vegetables and other healthy changes under a new incentive program, Gov. Mike Beebe and health officials announced last week.

Beebe announced the expansion of a pilot program started under former Gov. Mike Huckabee, his predecessor. But Beebe said that doesn’t mean he’s going to follow the slimmed-down footsteps of the Republican presidential hopeful.

“I have to tell you, I’m not going to lose 100 pounds” like Huckabee did after being diagnosed with diabetes, Beebe joked.

Under the Arkansas Healthy Lifestyle program, state employees can earn up to three days per year for participating in a voluntary program that focuses on increasing physical activity, increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and decreasing or eliminating the use of tobacco products.

The announcement expands the Healthy Employee Lifestyle Program, a pilot project started in 2004 targeting 10,000 employees in the Department of Health and Department of Human Services.

So far, more than 2,500 people have registered in the program and 947 have earned time off work through points earned by improving their eating habits and health.

Becky Kossover, a Department of Health employee, said she earned eight days off over the past three years by increasing her physical activity through the program.

“My daughter in Colorado Springs thought I was a little obsessive, and I was out there visiting and insisted on going for a walk every day,” Kossover said. “I said, ‘Honey, I am earning the days to be here with my grandchildren.’”

Health officials said the program should help the state save money in the long term by cutting down the number of workers out sick and reducing the costs of health care associated with unhealthy practices.

Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson said he hoped it would be a program that private businesses would also follow.

“This is not some touchy-feely program,” Thompson said. “This is actually the state being the leader for employer groups to say, ‘Let’s put our money where our mouth is. … Let’s put some incentives behind this so people can stay healthy.’”

(Associated Press)