DETROIT — Automakers are finding innovative ways to try to cut health care costs in ways that focus on improving the overall wellness of some of the most chronically ill employees and retirees.

One of the most interesting experiments is taking place at Ford, and it is believed to be showing enough promise that the automaker has quietly extended it past its two-year trial run.

The experiment is important because it shows how automakers are willing to try new strategies and take risks in trying to reduce one of their biggest cost headaches — groups of workers or retirees who amass the disproportionate share of health-care claims. Ford has a huge incentive to reduce those costs, since it spends an average of $7 an hour on health care for its blue-collar workers.

The issue is even more important at the moment because health care has loomed large in negotiations between the UAW and Detroit’s Big 3 automakers — General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The current four-year contract, which covers about 141,000 mostly hourly workers, expires Monday at midnight.

In June, 2013, Ford, the United Auto Workers Union and the trust that handles medical benefits for retire announced they were joining forces to create the Enhanced Care Program designed to give some of the sickest employees and retirees extra medical care, including private nurses, to treat chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease in a way that would improve health while slashing the cost of care.

An initial two-year study, to include 1,200 to 1,500 chronically ill Ford workers and retirees who are not eligible for Medicare, was modeled after a smaller, similar program at Boeing where Ford’s former CEO Alan Mulally worked before joining the automaker. Based on the Boeing model, the expectation was health care costs for ill employees would be cut by 17%.

The two-year study period for the program has come and gone, but we’ve learned that the study has been continued through the end of the year to gather more data before any decisions are made to expand its scope to other parts of the country or to discontinue it altogether. Early data suggest it has been successful, but a full analysis won’t be completed until next year.

Ford officials were not at liberty to discuss the program, said spokeswoman Kristina Adamski.

Participation in the Ford-UAW program is voluntary and confidential. Physicians selected the participants, whose names were never provided to Ford, the UAW or the retiree trust. The patients were to be assigned a nurse for two years to attend doctor appointments and help the patient follow a prescribed health plan.

Ford was the first automaker to offer focused care for chronically ill hourly workers and retirees. Chrysler was interested in the wellness program idea, but did not have enough eligible employees to proceed. General Motors officials familiar with the program could not be reached as most are involved in UAW negotiations.

All three Detroit automakers have wellness programs for salaried workers that reward health with benefits such as lower co-pays and premiums as incentives to improve their health.

Ford officials have said incentive programs for its salaried workers could evolve based on the results of the test program for the unionized workers.

Most large employers have some sort of wellness program, said Gary Claxton, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues in Washington.

Programs take many forms. About half of them ask employees to complete a health risk assessment and half require a biometric screening to gather information such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index. Claxton said. Programs can be based on the results, with cost penalties for those deemed at greater risk and incentives for those who take action and achieve health goals such as losing weight.

Claxton said wellness plans not only lower costs, but employees do not miss as much work and are more productive when they are on the job. Success cannot be evaluated quickly; results are long term because many initiatives, such as weight loss and better fitness, take time.

“The jury is still out whether they will be successful and worth the effort,” Claxton said, but the reality is that wellness plans are the direction that health care is taking.