Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

Weighing employee wellness programs

As a couch enthusiast of some renown, I'm generally opposed to any form of mandated physical exertion.

Our bodies know it's time to exercise when the guilt of not doing so outweighs the pleasure of eating ice cream in a comfy chair, or when said chair breaks under our weight.

Unfortunately, our life decisions do come with "consequences," dreadfully annoying things invented by Communists. And the consequences of poor health choices can include increased health-care costs.

Which brings us to "corporate wellness programs" or "wellness incentives," which are becoming common across the country. The general idea is if you take advantage of company-sponsored health initiatives — from smoking cessation to weight loss — and meet certain goals, you save money on health insurance.

This is not, at first glance, a terrible idea. While nobody likes being told what to do, it's tough to argue with the basic premise that being healthy is good.

And though executives may have other priorities than caring about how clogged your arteries are, there seems to be potential savings from reduced absenteeism and fewer employees dying in the break room mid cheeseburger.

Not to mention quieting the grumbling of workers who live healthy lives about having to offset the medical costs of a co-worker who sucks down Pringles like a Hoover.

But two new studies published this month in the journal Health Affairs raise questions about the overall efficacy and fairness of workplace wellness initiatives.

Gautam Gowrisankaran, an economics professor at the University of Arizona, examined the wellness program at a St. Louis hospital and found the rate of hospitalization for conditions targeted by the program dropped 41 percent. But this led to no net reduction in health claim costs.

Gowrisankaran explained that people in the wellness program exhibited "more faithful adherence to medication and doctor visits," which partially offset savings from fewer hospitalizations. The program's health screenings also revealed problems that sent some employees to the doctor.

The lack of overall savings, Gowrisankaran said, didn't make the program a failure: "If you can reduce hospitalizations for things like heart attacks by 40 percent, that's a great thing for an employer."

Employees who took part in the program saved about $1,700 a year, so that carrot was certainly in place. But Gowrisankaran said he can understand the conflicting opinions about these programs.

"On the one hand, there's the argument that we need to get employees to take more charge of their own health and behavior, and anything we can do to incentivize that is good," he said. "On the other hand are people who are privacy advocates who don't want their employer to get in their way. If I want to enjoy my doughnut and my cigarette in the morning, that's up to me."

(I'll pause here while everyone takes a break to smoke a doughnut.)

The second study says: "Despite widespread enthusiasm for health-contingent programs, there is sparse evidence that these programs can reduce short- or even medium-term costs through health improvement."

Co-author Jill Horwitz, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said: "The premise is that if people do all these things, their health is going to improve, and they're going to save money. But many studies show these incentive programs don't lead to health improvement."

The study found mixed evidence that employees with the targeted health conditions or behaviors (obesity, hypertension, smoking) have higher health costs than other employees. And there wasn't much to show that financial incentives are good at changing behavior.

What troubles Horwitz is the possibility that such programs are shifting costs away from workers who are more likely to be healthy anyway and placing them on those who are less healthy — and less able to shoulder the cost.

From the study: "The prevalence of unhealthy conditions typically targeted by wellness programs is highest among people with low socioeconomic status."

One way to avoid this would be to offer the services without tying them to a financial reward.

"When it's not related to compensation, that might be less worrisome," Horwitz said. "When you're adjusting the price of health insurance, you're really adjusting somebody's compensation package."

Comments
Career Q&A: What to do when your boss is stealing

Career Q&A: What to do when your boss is stealing

Q: I strongly suspect that my boss is stealing from our employer. As the property manager for this apartment complex, she handles all payments, deposits and other financial matters.A few weeks ago, I accidentally discovered some suspicious discrepanc...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Pinellas is at the center of a rise in Florida flu outbreaks

Pinellas is at the center of a rise in Florida flu outbreaks

Feeling a little sniffly or scratchy or stuffed up? It may be the flu, and you donít want to wait around to see a doctor this year. This is not the time to write off flu-like symptoms, Tampa Bay area health officials and doctors warn. The influenza v...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Italian Butterfingers? Nestle selling candy business for $2.9B

Italian Butterfingers? Nestle selling candy business for $2.9B

Associated PressNEW YORK ó Swiss food and drink giant Nestle is selling its U.S. candy business to Italyís Ferrero for about $2.9 billion in cash. Ferrero will take over iconic chocolate brands Butterfinger and Crunch bars, as well as the sugary Nerd...
Updated: 6 hours ago
23 seek vacant PSC post

23 seek vacant PSC post

There is another Mariano seeking a job in Tallahassee.Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano, the father of state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, is seeking an appointment to the Florida Public Service Commission, the powerful board regulating Florida ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
St. Petersburg’s apartment boom is spreading west

St. Petersburg’s apartment boom is spreading west

ST. PETERSBURG — Still more apartments are coming to St. Petersburg, this time to the Edge and Grand Central Districts just west of downtown. The new projects, all by out-of-state developers and more moderately priced than those downtown, will...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Florida raises insurance regulation grade from C to B

Florida raises insurance regulation grade from C to B

When it comes to regulating insurance, Florida is slowly improving. The Sunshine State raised its grade from a C in 2016 to a B in 2017 on the "R Street 2017 Insurance Regulation Report Card." It ranked No. 15 among all states.The annual report, writ...
Updated: 8 hours ago

US travel industry launches plan to reverse tourism decline

Associated PressNEW YORK ó Travel industry representatives sounded an alarm Tuesday over declines in international tourism to the U.S. and announced plans to reverse the trend. Organizers of the new Visit U.S. Coalition portrayed the decline as long-...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Raymond James advice for small to mid-sized companies about activist shareholders? Prepare and listen

Raymond James advice for small to mid-sized companies about activist shareholders? Prepare and listen

Shareholder fights between activist investors and publicly traded companies are getting nastier, especially in some industries, and a lot of them donít involve corporate giants like General Motors and Procter & Gamble.In 2015, according to Raymond Ja...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Dow bursts through 26,000 in record seven trading days

Dow bursts through 26,000 in record seven trading days

The Dow Jones industrial average blew past 26,000 Tuesday for the first time ever, coming only a week after hitting 25,000 and showing further evidence that the long-running bull market is alive and well."There are several reasons for markets to melt...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Arizona-based AFI Mortgage opens St. Petersburg branch

Arizona-based AFI Mortgage opens St. Petersburg branch

Times StaffAFI Mortgage, a subsidiary of an Arizona-based bank, is opening its first Florida locations in St. Petersburg and Lakeland. Its parent company, AmeriFirst Financial Inc., specializes in mortgages. "This Florida team is innovative, knowledg...
Published: 01/16/18