The ounce-of-prevention approach to containing health insurance costs has always seemed like a luxury only well-heeled companies could afford. High-tech exercise rooms, running tracks, and locker rooms are almost nonexistent among small companies. Yet it's those companies that stand to gain the most from promoting healthful habits.

"One big medical claim can just destroy the premium structure of a small company," says Bill Kizer, founder of Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA), an Omaha organizer of regional health-promotion councils.

The bitter irony is that a wellness program doesn't have to be costly. Gene Bedient, owner of Bedient Pipe Organ, in Lincoln, Nebr., created his own. He'd always believed in regular exercise and good eating habits. But not all of his 12 employees did. "In any group of people you'll have a certain percentage that just don't take care of themselves," he says.

Drawing on his own thoughts, Bedient wrote a booklet on staying well for his employees. Under three broad categories of physical, mental, and financial health, he covered nutrition, drinking, exercise, sleep, stress, family problems, retirement savings, and money management, as well as other topics.

He concluded the treatise with an incentive program: he pays employees for every healthful task they execute each month. For example, if you exercised three times a week during the month, that's worth $7. If you did not smoke, you collect $3. A real angel in this program could collect more than $300 a year. Furthermore, workers who have perfect attendance throughout the year receive an extra $300.

Bedient is currently paying out two-thirds of what he'd pay if all employees were model health citizens. Total cost to date: $2,300.

Bedient's employees have been eager participants, in part because the company has also joined a community wellness council that provides assessment and educational services for only $50 a year.

The payoff will be hard to assess until two or three years have passed. Large companies, which have more experience with wellness programs, report powerful results. In 1989 the Scoular Grain Co., in Omaha, for example, saved $1,500 per employee in total health-care costs as a result of a program.

But Bedient isn't impatient about reaping such benefits. "In the long range, it will pay off. If your approach is simply that it's going to save you a lot of money, employees will sense that and be skeptical," he warns. For $2 you can get a copy of Bedient's booklet on staying well, complete with his wellness incentive plan. Call 402-470-3675, or fax to 402-470-3676.

-- Ellen E. Spragins