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Wellness Programs – New Study Confirms Cautioned Approach

During the past seven years, I have written a fair number of posts regarding wellness programs offered by employers. The core message of all blogs suggests that employers must have realistic expectations about what wellness initiatives will or will not do within the workplace.

A recent randomized clinical study published in JAMA is yet another reminder for employers to have tepid expectations when trying to keep their employees happy, healthy and less likely to incur more health costs. The study found that workplace wellness programs do not cut healthcare costs for employers, reduce absenteeism or improve the health of employees.

From the University of Chicago and Harvard, researchers used a large-scale approach that was peer-reviewed and included a more sophisticated design when analyzing BJ’s Wholesale Clubs. BJ’s has about 33,000 employees across 160 clubs. This analysis compared 20 randomly-assigned clubs that offered wellness programs with 140 BJ’s clubs that did not.

After 18 months of timeline analysis, this study revealed that wellness programs did not result in health measure differences, such as: improved blood sugar or glucose levels, reduced healthcare costs or absenteeism, or impacted job performance in a positive manner. In other words, employees with a wellness program did not experience reduced healthcare costs and other desired affects. I suppose one could argue that a year and one half was not enough comparison time to develop these conclusions.

One of the authors of this study, Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, put it quite succinctly in a Kaiser Health News article: “[But] if employers are offering these programs in hopes that health spending and absenteeism will go down, this study should give them pause.”

What are your expectations about workplace wellness? Do you believe such programs, when appropriately and thoughtfully implemented, will greatly mitigate your healthcare costs, improve workforce productivity and reduce absenteeism? Maybe you feel these programs are a waste. From our 2012 Iowa Employer Benefits Study, employers shared their perceived ‘return on investment’ on the programs they currently had in place.

According to a 2013 “Workplace Wellness Programs Study” by researchers at the RAND Corporation, these programs only have a modest effect. This runs contrary to claims made by wellness firms that sell workplace wellness programs to employers. The report found that people who participate in wellness initiatives lose an average of only one pound a year for three years. Another finding is that employee participation in such plans “was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol level.” Smoking-cessation programs show some potential, but only “in the short term.”

Most likely, both skeptics and supporters of wellness initiatives will find ammunition to support their cause. Workplace wellness programs have grown to an $8 billion industry in the U.S., primarily as a direct result of rising employer health insurance costs.

This latest report may help stabilize any pre-conceived lofty expectations each of us may have about the benefits of workplace wellness programs. However, it must be noted that some employers have found value in these programs.

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Expansion of Medicaid – What REALLY Matters?

Quality care diceA new randomized and controlled clinical trial provides fascinating information for Iowa (and other states) to review while policymakers consider whether or not to expand Medicaid. I highly encourage you to read this study, as it helps frame the real issues we must focus on as a state and country.

Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, ‘The Oregon Experiment – Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes,’ study reviews the potential effects of expanding Medicaid to impact healthy outcomes when health coverage becomes available to low-income adults. As you have correctly guessed, the petri dish for this experiment was the state of Oregon.

When expanding Medicaid for the poor, the primary benefits can be lower depression rates, greater health-care utilization and the elimination of catastrophic medical expenses for those who acquire the insurance. According to the study’s primary author, Katherine Baicker, a Harvard health economics professor, “The purpose of insurance is not to just get you access to healthcare, it’s to protect you from financial ruin if you have an expensive condition.” Dr. Baicker was one of many speakers at Harvard’s “Forces of Change” series on healthcare that I attended in Boston a few years back…she is a wickedly smart and a concise researcher.

In Iowa, a great debate has erupted (mostly along partisan lines) about whether to expand Medicaid or pursue a new but untested plan offered by Governor Branstad. Both approaches have supporters and critics for a number of reasons – arguments founded on facts, emotion and, you guessed it, politics.

So what is the truth?

I don’t pretend to have the answer. However, the Oregon Experiment does give additional insight on the implications for any legislative activity enacted in this state. It is common knowledge that having insurance coverage allows us to seek medical care that will make us healthier and more productive…and we won’t go bankrupt. We also know that having insurance provides each of us a peace of mind, it certainly does for me. Finally, having insurance improves access to healthcare providers and services. Enough said, right?

Not so fast – after learning of this new study, we may need to reassess this logic and maybe qualify it a bit more. The study findings consistently support the importance of delivering QUALITY health care to our population. To borrow a quote from Dr. Ashish Jha, another wickedly smart physician and researcher at Harvard, “The explanation is simple. It’s not about access to healthcare; it’s about access to high quality healthcare.” Baicker’s recent study certainly supports Dr. Jha’s conclusions.

We cannot expect to have a healthier population by merely providing insurance to gain access to necessary care. In fact, there is evidence that shows doctors who spend a great deal of their time serving Medicaid recipients deliver lower-quality care. Insurance will unlock the door to gaining access to care, but having this access does not ensure we receive quality care that will improve our health.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) attempts to improve access to care for those least fortunate in our society – and most everyone agrees that this is important. However, the ACA does little to control spiraling costs and improve the quality of care being delivered. By adding more insureds into an already dysfunctional, high-cost ‘system,’ will only make our health costs considerably greater and even more uncontrollable over time.

It’s like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

Improving the health of our population means that we must pursue logical steps to ensure that high-quality care is being delivered at a reasonable cost. Gaining access to care is not enough…we must commit to having high-quality care accompany this access. Dr. Jha articulated this point very well: “Quality is the link between healthcare services and better health outcomes.”

It is time to make sure this healthcare ship is traveling in the right direction. It’s what we all should demand…it’s what we all deserve!

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