Tuesday, March 5, 2013
In one of the first rigorous looks at the effects of employee wellness programs, researchers at the University of Arizona at Tucson and elsewhere concluded that the major effect of the programs on health care costs was to shift them from the inpatient setting to the outpatient settings. Costs for hospitalizations dropped, but costs for drugs and outpatient visits increased. The wellness program studied, at BJC Healthcare, a large St. Louis hospital system, targeted life-style influenced conditions: high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung problems, serious respiratory infections, and stroke.
The ACA contains provisions designed to encourage the growth of employee wellness programs, including discounting up to 30% of the cost of employee coverage, and financial rewards for participating in healthy behaviors. If the thought was that participation in employee wellness programs would help lower direct health care costs, this study at least raises a serious question as to whether that is the case.
The study notes that it is possible that employers reap other benefits from wellness programs, such as reduced absenteeism and higher productivity. There is also the possibility that employees who participate in an employer-sponsored wellness program feel increased loyalty to their employer, and that is undoubtedly worth something. But it appears that we may have to look elsewhere to reap real savings in the direct costs of health care.
Cross-posted on Healthy Interests