Wellness or Else Programs

Punitive wellness programs are coming under increasing scrutiny. “Wellness or else is the trend,” according to Jon Robinson of Salveo Partners, a workplace health consulting organization.

Wellness Program InfographicAccording to statistics from the National Business Group on Health, two-thirds of large companies use incentives to encourage employees to participate in their wellness programs. And nearly a quarter of those incentives — a growing proportion — are structured as penalties.

The problem, according to Ron Goetzel of the Bloomberg School of Public Health is this:

The latest research done shows that only seven percent of U.S. employers have comprehensive, well-designed, well-implemented health promotion programs.

As wellness penalties grow into substantial sums of money, they are becoming more attractive as a means for shifting healthcare costs to employees with chronic diseases. Larry Levitt, Senior VP of the Kaiser Family Foundation, explains that  “there seems little question that you can make wellness programs save money with high enough penalties that essentially shift more healthcare costs to workers.”

As these programs become more aggressive, corporate goals for your weight are gaining more importance. UCLA law professor Jill Horwitz describes the shift:

Now, your job is not just doing the data entry. Your job is doing the data entry and getting a healthcare screening and losing weight.

In a commentary published today by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ConscienHealth founder Ted Kyle says employers can take positive action:

What’s an employer to do? Two things would help a lot. The first is to create a culture of good health at work. Job requirements, work spaces and food quality at work can have big effects. This is where people spend most of their waking hours. Simply encouraging people to sit less can help.

The second thing is to make sure that health plans cover evidence-based treatments for obesity. At present, most of the employers that penalize people for obesity have health plans that restrict coverage for medical weight management, nutrition counseling, and bariatric surgery.

By serving as a cover for shifting healthcare costs to people with chronic diseases, “wellness” is gaining ironically harsh connotations.

Click here to read Kyle’s commentary in the Post-Gazette, click here for more from Marketplace, and click here for more from Reuters.

DEMAND Centre, photograph © DaveBleasdale / flickr

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4 Responses to “Wellness or Else Programs”

  1. January 16, 2015 at 7:35 am, Susan Burke March said:

    Important comments, Ted! I just wrote the study guide for CEPUs for Brian Wansink’s “Slim By Design”, and he talks a lot about workplace wellness programs, and how important it is for employers to make the workplace “mindlessly healthier” by creating breakrooms that are more attractive, making it possible to get in more steps getting to and from the parking lot, and offering flexibility to employees who want to join a formal exercise or weight loss program, whether it be a gym, seeing a registered dietitian, or other – it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

    • January 16, 2015 at 8:24 am, Ted said:

      Good point, Susan. The world of employer wellness is dividing into employers that want to dump costs on people with health problems versus employers that value a culture of health. The best possible wellness for every employee should be the goal, or why bother.

  2. January 16, 2015 at 9:34 am, Matthew Jenkins said:

    Forcing people to do anything will always backfire. It’s easy to say, “You should quit smoking.” All people know that, but saying it and then turning your back on the person doesn’t solve the problem. Some companies are looking to take the easy way out. Getting an entire workforce to change their lifestyle is not easy, but the ROI has tremendous effect on the bottom line of the business.

    Companies just need to be better educated on how to go about implementing a comprehensive wellness program.

    • January 16, 2015 at 9:49 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Matthew. You are right. And some companies are very thoughtful about their wellness programs.

      But some have discovered they can use them to shift health costs onto people with chronic disease while pretending to care about their health. That’s shameful.