The Gift is You

Rachel Sapoznik promotes the power of wellness

By Andrea Richard

Rachel Sapoznik is just finishing up her Mediterranean salad, topped with grilled salmon, when she looks up and orders an espresso. Black. “All this artificial sweetener, I won’t use it. It’s so bad for your health,” says the CEO of the employee benefits agency, Sapoznik Insurance.

It was lunch time, midweek, when we met for her SFBW interview at her North Miami Beach headquarters. We walked across the street to a trendy café. She was wearing heels, dressed in a bright blue tailored dress, with her makeup done to perfection and honey blonde strands gracing her shoulders.

“We have a yoga teacher coming to the office later this week,” she says as we cross the road. “I always try to find innovative ways to get my team moving. Hey, look, we’re walking to lunch right now. I got you moving.”

In recent years, health experts have reported that sitting is the new smoking, and Sapoznik is on a mission to empower and educate people to lead a life of wellness. At the company’s headquarters, some of the staff sit on exercise balls in lieu of chairs so they can work their core muscles while seated at desks. Medical practitioners will come in so workers can have routine checkups in a pinch. Whether it’s simple changes to comprehensive insurance or wellness packages for her team and corporate clients, she has been leading the way. This year, Sapoznik Insurance is celebrating its 30th year. And she launched “The Gift is You,” a program that focuses on valuing individuals’ health and wellness.

The spark that started it all

Looking back to her early life, observing an ailing family member was an unexpected motivator for the young Sapoznik. At 24, the Miami Beach native found out her beloved aunt in Panama, a mother of seven children, was diagnosed with cancer. “I was just starting to have children myself. I had my first son at 25 and she ultimately passed away two or three years later,” she says. “To this day, when my cousins talk about their mom, it’s painful.”

That loss and seeing how an illness affected a family was monumental, she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these kids don’t have a mom and this is what sickness does.’ It destroys people. It destroys them in so many ways.”

 She never lost sight of that.

After working at a corporate insurance company and losing her job, she launched Sapoznik Insurance out of her garage, in 1987. A year later, she landed a big client and now oversees one of South Florida’s largest insurance companies. She’s also a published author in the field of wellness, a recipient of scores of awards and a steward for numerous charitable organizations.

For Sapoznik, prevention is central. “My thing has always been education. I love to educate, and there’s nothing more important to me than to educate someone on how to take care of themselves the best way they can,” she says.

She learned early the value of wellness through her French mother, who was strict about healthy eating. Her father was from Panama. The family resided in Miami Beach, following a Mediterranean lifestyle. She would walk to school, and family outings included bike rides to parks.

“Look at Italy, look at France—their way of being is so much better than the United States. In Europe, you’re walking and you’re eating smaller portions and not all the artificial food,” she says. “How can the greatest country in the world not have the best health care system? We don’t. We don’t even have the healthiest people. Why is that?”

It’s inactivity that is creating all the problems, she says. “Even with our kids, 30 percent of the kids in Miami-Dade County are borderline diabetic to diabetic because we don’t move.”

In the United States, the cost of health care has been steadily rising, along with the cost of health insurance premiums, and the question of what to do about it is a highly divisive topic in today’s political climate. Sapoznik expects there will be no changes before a new Congress is seated in 2019.

But health coverage is only one aspect of Sapoznik’s focus. For Sapoznik, personal accountability is where it starts—such as having routine checkups and taking action if, say, high blood pressure is diagnosed.

Creating a culture

In 2015, she released a book, A Passion for Wellness: Healthy Employees, Healthy Bottom Line, a resource for employers on the value of promoting healthy lifestyles.

“To me, I’m trying to create a corporate culture,” she says. “That’s why I wrote the book. The whole idea was to look at health insurance as a ‘what if’—what if I get cancer, what if I get sick. The good part about the ACA [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which became law in 2010] is that all the wellness is covered 100 percent. I want to teach people to move from ‘what if I get sick’ to ‘I want to stay healthy. I’m going to eat properly, I’m going to exercise.’ Does that mean you’ll never have cancer? No. Does that mean you’ll never have a heart attack. No. But you will be a stronger person to get over it than if you had never taken care of yourself,” she says.

 People need to have the attitude of personal responsibility, she says. “We’ve created a society of entitlement.”

 She espouses the concept of well care. “You’re moving into a direction of staying healthy,” she says. “Everyone is worried about costs and claims and deductibles. I really want to move into that direction of that concept of mindfulness.”

In her book, she discusses the significance of knowing your numbers: your blood pressure, body mass index, your cholesterol.  

“The book for me has been wonderful because it allows me to have conversations with precisely the C-suite—CEOs and owners—to let them know that we can all work together to have our society healthier. Employers have become society’s surrogate parents. If we can help our employees, and we have time in the work day to move around, to understand wellness, to understand their benefits—the employees get healthier, the employers are going to have better employees. And … healthier employees means your profits are going to go up,” she says. 

Sapoznik has many car dealerships as clients. “It’s usually a high-pressure, high-stress environment. And it’s hard for them to get out and go to the doctors,” she says. “And many years ago, I saw what was going on and I made that my model. I thought about, ‘How can I make a difference?’ And through that, by really observing what was going on, we were able to create this environment where we bring everything to them … the nurses, the technicians who can check your arteries. It takes 15 minutes. We had people, we saved their lives because maybe their arteries were 90 percent clogged and they didn’t even know it. Just last week, two people were sent to the doctor.”

Coupling convenience and education helps employers get their employees healthy, she says.

The bottom line 

When employees are not taking care of themselves, their health insurance claims go up, out-of-pocket expenses go up, and deductibles go up—not just on the employees’ side but on the employers’, Sapoznik says.

In addition, to attract and retain talent, she advises companies to ensure their benefit programs are better than what’s typically available through other employers.

 “It’s not just about the premium and the copayment,” she says. “Culture begins with how employees feel in their work environments.

“The person is the gift. I want people to love themselves again and say, ‘I am a gift to my family and if I stay healthy, I will be a great gift,’ ” she says. “When I get that call from someone and they say, ‘Thank you, thank you for the help, thank you for being able to be there for me and really making a difference—that’s my motivator.” 

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