Manatee School District's wellness screening program in jeopardy

eearl@bradenton.comMay 6, 2013 

MANATEE -- King Middle School teacher Ellen Binder is a major proponent for wellness screenings because they save lives -- including her own.

Binder said the wellness screening program literally saved her life and, as dwindling funds may jeopardize the program, Binder is passionately sharing her story.

Binder said walking a few steps down the hall for the screening was one of the best decisions she ever made.

In September 2010, Binder underwent a wellness screening, which consists of a simple questionnaire, blood pressure reading and blood test. Her results revealed Binder had elevated liver enzymes, and she was directed to an internist. After a series of additional tests, doctors found a pre-cancerous growth in Binder's pancreas.

Within four months, the growth was successfully removed surgically at Johns Hopkins. Binder never experienced symptoms from the mass, which could have evolved into pancreatic cancer if left alone.

"Doctors told me over and over again how much of an

anomaly I was," Binder said. "The surgeons at Johns Hopkins told me I was so lucky that the growth was detected as early as it was. They were astounded."

Since the health scare, Binder, now 64, has urged all co-workers to take advantage of the program. She also wants to make sure it isn't cut during the budget crunch now facing the school district.

Wellness screenings occur annually on school campuses on a first-come, first-served basis for the first 30 employees who sign up. If cut, fewer teachers would have the opportunity to use the screenings provided through the district's self-insurance plan with Florida Blue and contracted through the Manatee County Health Department.

The wellness program used to be partially funded by the federal Retiree Drug Subsidy program meant for wellness activities, but no more.

"Currently the funding comes from a pot of money in which the lion's share is the district's contribution," said Steve Henderson, school district risk management director. "The rest comes from employee-paid premiums."

Diana Sitar, school district wellness specialist, said the proactive screenings were initiated to promote healthy habits and avoid unnecessary medical expenses.

"A healthy employee will be more productive in the classroom," Sitar said.

Sitar projects 1,400 employees will participate in the program by the end of the year at a cost of $67 per employee.

The retail value of the screening is estimated at $200 each.

However, in today's financial climate, every district expense is subject to review.

"I don't want to cause any alarm, but I don't know what the future holds yet," Henderson said.

Binder hopes the program prevails.

"This is not just about me," Binder said. "There are many other diseases in which early detection is the key to survival."

King Middle School nurse Jackie Timms said the screenings save money in the long run. "You don't have absentees because they don't have to leave to go to the doctor and get a screening," Timms said.

Binder said early detection saves health costs by catching diseases in earlier, more treatable stages. Her surgery, while still costly, would have been more expensive if she had been forced to stay home from work and undergo a series of cancer treatments, Binder said.

Binder said she hopes her story will encourage others to make appointments and have blood drawn regularly.

"I have not been reluctant to share my story. It has the potential to help others," Binder said.

King Middle wellness screening were held again last Monday, and participants will receive the results today.

"Every district employee should take advantage of this service and go when they can," Binder said.

Erica Earl, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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