Two Friends

Wellness Programs for Bottom Lines, Employees Not So Much

Employer-sponsored wellness programs are sprouting up throughout corporate America with the goal to get employees healthier and drive down the cost of health benefits. But how helpful are these programs? A new study presented today at Obesity Week found that wellness programs are commonly setting weight goals for employees, but most often they are paired with employer health plans denying coverage for evidence-based obesity treatment.

A first-of-its-kind study, “Employer Wellness Programs, Weight Outcome Hurdles and Obesity Treatment Access,” was conducted by Ted Kyle of ConscienHealth and Joe Nadglowski of the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC). They examined the structure and controls of employee wellness programs when it comes to addressing America’s costly obesity epidemic.

The study was named by the Obesity Society’s (TOS) Health Services Research Section as “one of the best abstracts being presented during Obesity Week.” The research will be recognized with a Section award at a ceremony held during the conference on Wednesday, November 13 at 7:00 p.m.

The study surveyed more than 5,000 employees who are required to participate in wellness programs to qualify for full health benefits. The investigators found that most employer-sponsored health benefit plans (59 percent) do not cover obesity treatment, even though these same employers commonly set weight, diet, and exercise goals for employees.

According to Kyle, lead author of the study, “Unfortunately, it seems that a growing number of employers figured out that carefully crafted weight or body mass index (BMI) requirements can also be an effective way of making it harder for people with obesity to enjoy the full benefits of healthcare coverage, saving short-term costs while hurting employees. Our study shows how some programs can amount to a subterfuge for discrimination. All too often, a wellness plan that sets weight goals for employees is paired with a health plan that denies coverage for evidence-based obesity treatments. By doing this, an employer risks alienating more than a third of its employees.”

Study Reveals an Uneven Playing Field
This study of more than 5,000 employed adults asked about health-related goals set by employers and what treatments their health plan covered. The study reported that 67% of employees who must participate in an employer’s wellness plan to get full health coverage are required to meet weight-related wellness goals. And yet 59 percent say their employers offer no coverage for fitness training, registered dietitian counseling, obesity drugs, or bariatric surgery to help achieve a BMI under 25, which is considered healthy.

Robert Kushner, Director Northwestern’s Comprehensive Center on Obesity, weighed in on the research, saying, “Tackling obesity in the workplace requires a holistic approach. Doing it right includes offering well-designed workplaces that encourage activity, cafeterias that focus on healthy eating, leaders who model healthy behavior, and health plans covering a wide range of treatments.”

Obesity Groups Collaborate for a Solution
The study results join existing information on the subject of corporate wellness programs with experts and leading obesity advocate groups reinforcing the need for change in the area of obesity coverage. In September, TOS published a position statement authored by Kyle and TOS Public Affairs Chair, Adam Tsai, MD, recommending against employers setting arbitrary BMI goals for employees participating in wellness programs.

“Employers are at risk of creating a wellness system that is used not to improve health, but to discriminate against those with obesity in order to improve their bottom line,” stated Dr. Tsai. “Employers should avoid BMI targets as the basis for any financial penalty or incentive, and instead reward employees for engaging in specific behaviors. Corporations need to encourage employees to maintain healthy eating habits, increase exercise and participate in weight management programs.”

Commenting on the findings, Nadglowski said, “Without a genuine commitment to employee health, a wellness program is useless as evidenced in recent news reports about Penn State. Their faculty and staff forced the university to cancel plans for a wellness program that would have penalized employees who would not submit to being weighed for it.”

Click here to read more from Reuters about the study and wellness programs and here to read the full study as presented at Obesity Week.

Two Friends, photograph by Maciej Lewandowski, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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