Rather than focusing on treating illnesses, the healthcare industry is shifting more toward prevention and wellness and rewarding employees who participate in such programs. Starting next year, the healthcare reform law allows employers to reward employees who participate in workplace wellness programs with subsidies equal to 30 percent of the cost of insurance premiums, or some $1,620 annually per worker, according to MedCity News.
However, some employers already reward employees with lower insurance premiums, according to Katie Wittekind, wellness coordinator for Northern Arizona Public Employees Benefit Trust, which provides wellness programs to 3,200 employees from organizations including Coconino Community College, Coconino County, Flagstaff Unified School District and the City of Flagstaff.
Wittekind says employees can earn insurance discounts for participating in biomedical screening, a 15-point system that measures health assessment factors such as exercise, smoking, drinking and blood pressure. Points also can be given for participating in on-site classes for employees.
Workplace wellness, according to MedCity News, is a $6 billion industry in the United States with more than 500 vendors now selling wellness programs or packages. Online Rewards CEO Michael Levy notes that as of 2013, corporate employers are planning to spend “an average of $521 per employee on wellness incentives, which is double the amount per employee spent in 2009.” Incentives can include gift cards, insurance premium discounts and days off.
Weight Watchers offers a wellness program and claims, “employees have been shown to have 42 percent higher healthcare costs than those with a healthy weight, and tend to have greater work absenteeism due to illness than their coworkers who are at a healthy weight.”
How effective are wellness programs? A recently released report by the RAND Corporation states that “programs that try to get employees to become healthier and reduce medical costs have only a modest effect.”
The report, for example, found that people who participate in such programs lose an average of only one pound per year for three years. Additionally, the report goes on to say that participation “was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol levels” and that smoking cessation groups work, “but only in the short term.”
Maria Ghazal, a member of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of big companies, doesn’t agree with the findings. “Companies from the CEO on down feel that these programs are bringing value; the criticism is surprising because companies are not hearing that internally.”
Wittekind agrees. She says she has only been with the program since November 2012, and is still gathering data, but she feels it has great value even if the results take time. “I understand that it takes about two to five years to show results and how you measure success is important.”
Wittekind is looking at the impact her program has on the number of hospital admissions the employees may have. Also she is looking at other factors as reported by employees like “increase in energy, motivation and self-esteem,” all things that impact productivity and absenteeism.
An overall goal of her program is to reduce the prevalence of modifiable diseases such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coronary artery disease and heart failure.
Wittekind offers free classes that deal with stress reduction, body image and weight, nutrition and yoga. She says the programs are successful because “money talks” and people want to reduce costs for health insurance and get healthier. She is hoping by February 2014 she will have data to demonstrate the effectiveness of the various programs offered by Northern Arizona Public Employees Benefit Trust.
Meantime, the RAND report notes only “forty-four percent of employers have actually evaluated their wellness efforts and only two percent had precise savings estimates.” Also, the report states, “healthcare costs and use of expensive medical services rose more slowly for program participants than for non-participants,” leaving researchers to conclude that one key element for wellness program success is continued participation. FBN