Employer Wellness Issue Heats Up

May 20th, 2013 by MorganDowney Leave a reply »

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a long hearing on May 8, 2013 on employer wellness programs. Opponents made a strong case that there was virtually no way that a mandatory health-contingent wellness plan could not discriminate against protected classes of workers. (See statement of Judith Lichtman) On the other hand, the more pro-business representatives argued that Congress and the Administration supported the changes in the Affordable Care Act and the programs where here to stay. It seems that all parties are urging the EEOC to provide guidances to employers.

The testimony came amid a backdrop of waiting for the final regulations from the Obama Administration. The comment period closed in January and many were expecting we would have final regulations by now. Politico reported that a group of corporate CEOs with the Business Roundtable were in Washington recently to lobby the Administration to avoid further weakening of the regulations.

Forbes magazine was reporting the CVS-Caremark was penalizing workers $600 annually if they failed to complete a health risk assessment. The article noted that most companies did not provide such stiff penalties but many were moving in that direction.

Meanwhile, several research articles provide only lukewarm support for weigh loss employer wellness programs.

A Health Affairs article by Ron Goetzel and colleagues, found only 22 % of employer health care costs could be attributed to 10 modifiable health factors (including obesity). This is actually a drop from 24.9% in 1998, even though rates of obesity have increased and costs related to obesity have gone up. Obesity contributed the most excess costs at $347 per capita. Goetzel, Pei, et al,

Another recent paper was a longitudinal study at the worker productivity in terms of absenteeism, presenteeism and job performance associated with changes in 19 modifiable well-being risks. These included physical health risks, health behavior risks, social and emotional health risks work-related risks and financial health risks.  The researchers found that, “Obesity, high cholesterol, tobacco use and excessive alcohol generally contributed to productivity changes insignificantly or unfavorable, possibly because of its multicolinearity with other risks that are closely correlated.” However, they noted that, “Health-related risk explained only a portion of the total productivity variances. For example, Riedel et al found that health risks accounted for 7.8% of the total variance in productivity impairment and acknowledged that the majority of the variation was left unexplained. Lenneman et al also found only 8.5% of the variance in productivity was contributed by health risks…We found that reductions in work-related well-being risks and financial health risks significantly contributed to improvement in productivity measures especially for measures of presenteeism and job performance that were not attributable solely to the more narrow definition of physical health.” They found modest numbers of workers were able to make improvements: 25% reduced their physical health risks 26% improved their health behaviors 16% improved their social and emotional health, 31% improved their work-related risks and 13% their financial health risks. Improvements in absenteeism, decrease in presenteeism and a modest improvement in job performance accompanied such changes. They calculated these improvements were equivalent to a savings of $468 per person per year. Shi, et al.

Ted Kyle reports in his blog that one program, Healthy Blue Living, requires obese participants to wear a pedometer which uploads their physical activity to the employer wellness program. The employees must meet daily step goals if they want to keep full health benefits. Not doing so could cost them each $2000 a year. Kyle notes (and I strongly agree) that this constitutes human experimentation without the protection of the federal regulation protecting human subjects, 45 Code of Federal Regulations Part 46. In fact, the program is not that successful. Promotional material notes that only 16% who agreed got their weight under a BMI of 30.

Yet another study published in Health Affairs looked at one hospital system’s wellness program. The program provide a substantial incentive/penalty for participation in a health risk assessment (which included automated feedback) signing a health pledge, health fairs and physician referrals. The study found a significant reduction in hospitalizations for conditions related to the conditions covered by the wellness program. However, there was an increase in medication costs. Combined with the costs of the wellness program and incentives, the authors concluded, “It is unlikely that the program saved money.” Gowrisankaran G, et al. A Hospital System’s Wellness Program Linked to Health Plan Enrollment Cut Hospitalizations But Not Overall Costs, Health Affairs 32 (3) 2013; 477-485. Gowrisankaran

A second paper also published in Health Affairs reviewed randomized controlled trials of workplace wellness programs. Their review raises doubts the employees with health risk factors such as obesity and tobacco use spend more money on medical care than others. They concluded that workplace wellness programs show little evidence of saving costs through health improvements without being discriminatory.  To test the assumptions of workplace wellness programs the authors, “reviewed research on the relationships among financial incentives, behavior, health status, and medical spending. We focused on randomized controlled trials involving four conditions- smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity- that are typically included in health-contingent programs. In our review, we found mixed evidence that employees with these conditions have higher health costs than other employees, which undermines the argument that employees with the conditions are particularly effective targets for incentives. We also found little evidence that working-age people change their behavior as a result of financial incentives, particularly over the long term. These findings suggest that program savings many not, in fact, derive from health improvements. Instead, they may come from making workers with health risks pay more for their health care than workers without health risks do. If true, this conclusion would jeopardize long-standing regulatory efforts, maintained in recently proposed Affordable Care Act regulations to prevent workplace wellness from being “a subterfuge for underwriting or reducing benefits based on health status. (citations omitted) Since low-income workers disproportionately suffer from conditions typically targeted by health-contingent programs, savings arising outside of health improvement may entail hidden, regressive redistributions increasing the burden imposed on low-income workers. “

In effect, they point out, wellness plans shift costs with the most vulnerable employees, those from low income groups with the most health risks probably subsidizing the healthier workers. Horwitz, JR, Kelly, BD, DiNardo, JE, Wellness Incentives in the Workplace: Cost Savings Through Cost Shifting to Unhealthy Workers, Health Affairs, 32 (3), 2013:468-476. Horwitz

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has issued another independent review. This time they reviewed studies of strategies to prevent weight gain in adults. The reviewers looked at 51 trials involving 555,783 subjects with at least one year of follow-up and a weight outcome. A meaningful difference between groups was considered to be 0.5 kg of weight (1.1 pound) or 1 cm of waist circumference. They found moderate evidence that workplace programs for the prevention of weight gain in adults. One study combining diet, physical activity and environmental components resulted in meaningful and statistically significant prevention of BMI change at 12 months and another that combined internet based diet and physical activity counseling resulted in significant prevention at 24 months. However, a third study found no difference. AHRQ Strategies to Prevent Weight Gain Among Adults, Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 97, AHRQ

Also cited as, Gudzune K et al Strategies to prevent weight gain in workplace and college settings: A systematic review, Prev Med. 2013 Mar 22. Gudzune