Obamacare Wellness Programs 'Won't Work and Will Drive Up Costs'

Friday, 21 Jun 2013 02:23 PM

By Dan Weil

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Incentives contained in Obamacare to promote employee wellness programs aren't likely to produce any great results or cost savings, according to two health experts writing in The Wall Street Journal.

"It's a turbocharged version of 'workplace wellness' programs," Al Lewis and Vik Khanna write in reference to the program contained in the Affordable Care Act. "If employees fall short of their targets — on blood pressure or weight, for example — employers are allowed to make them contribute more to their health insurance. The idea is to rein in medical costs by reducing worker illness."

But, Lewis and Khanna say, "There's only one problem. Workplace wellness programs don't work."

"The onset of heart attacks and other maladies that might be reduced by healthy living are relatively uncommon. Preventing all of them for a company's entire workforce wouldn't save nearly enough to cover the average wellness-program expense, which including incentives can approach $1,000 per participant annually," The two added.

Citing numerous studies, They noted that wellness programs have been around for more than two decades, but are "ineffective at reducing costs, lack support in medical literature, are unpopular enough to require incentives [as in the case of Obamacare], and are occasionally even harmful to employees."

Not surprisingly, wellness companies themselves say the programs work. But, "almost every wellness company shows savings by comparing motivated participants in its programs with unmotivated nonparticipants," the two write.

For example, the companies' claims sidestep the obvious reality that people who seek to quit smoking will do so at higher rates than those who don't want to quit, whether they're part of a wellness program or not.

Lewis and Khanna aren't completely opposed to workplace wellness efforts, lauding on-site gyms, corporate sports teams, healthy cafeteria food, and free nicotine patches.

"But take out those components that don't need or benefit from government incentives or regulation and here's what's left: employers paying workers to fill out anonymous forms about their health, facilitated by human-resources departments reliant on vendors and brokers to concoct math to justify these programs — all in the name of preventing medical events that vendors don't track," they write.

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