One of the ObamaCare amendments that Congress cannot seem to agree on is the one which provides incentives for companies to encourage their workers to stay healthy. It’s a type of workplace wellness program, whereby if employees fall short of their targets—on blood pressure or weight, for example—employers are allowed to make them contribute more to their health insurance. The idea is to rein in medical costs by reducing worker illness.
Unfortunately, it’s a well-recorded fact that workplace wellness programs don’t work. Such programs, which have been around for more than two decades, are ineffective at reducing costs, lack support in medical literature, are unpopular enough to require incentives, and are occasionally even harmful to employees.
The Rand Corp. recently released a study of workplace wellness that was undertaken at the behest of the Obama administration. The study, unfortunately, strains to find positive results.
But let’s check out what some wellness companies have to say. US Corporate Wellness, for instance, boasts in its marketing materials that its wellness-program participants at Denver Children’s Hospital “are 230% less likely” to use the hospital’s extended-illness benefit.
Another wellness company, Interactive Health, reports in its ‘2013 White Paper’ that only 5% more people reduced their risks than increased them—but the (unnamed) client nonetheless is said to have saved the equivalent of $54,000 for each of those reduced-risk participants in 2011 alone. No easy feat when average corporate medical spending is about $6,000 per person annually.
However these wellness program statistics are dubious at best. That’s because wellness companies tend to show savings by comparing motivated participants in its programs with unmotivated nonparticipants AND blatantly ignoring, for example, the obvious fact that people who want to quit smoking will quit at higher rates than those who don’t, regardless of whether an employer offers a program. Another trick commonly used is to count only the people who improve—such as smokers who quit, but not quitters who resume smoking.
Participant employees, on the other hand, may supply false information about their health, making the stats completely unreliable. For example, many are not going to admit how much they drink if they over-imbibe. So an employer endeavoring to create a culture of health may in reality be creating a culture of deceit.
Finally, these programs can even harm employees as the workers follow up on recommendations by getting unnecessary testing.
So are there any positives with such programs? Well if employers offer on-site gyms, corporate sports teams, healthy cafeteria food and free nicotine patches, then yes.
The authors, however point out that, “…take out those components that don’t need or benefit from government incentives or regulation and here’s what’s left: Employers paying workers to fill out anonymous forms about their health, facilitated by human-resources departments reliant on vendors and brokers to concoct math to justify these programs . . . all in the name of preventing medical events that vendors don’t track.”
Only time can tell if President Obama’s mission to provide affordable healthcare for all will work or not, for both employers and employees.