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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wellness Programs: Controversies Continue

Professor Jill Horwitz has coauthored a very troubling critique of workplace wellness programs, characterizing them as a possible form of cost-shifting to unhealthy workers.

[H]ealth-contingent programs encouraged by the Affordable Care Act rely on the assumption that the returns to health improvement are generally highest for employees with modifiable risk factors, such as an unhealthy diet or a behavior like smoking.

To assess these three assumptions, we reviewed research on the relationships among financial incentives, behavior, health status, and medical spending. We focused on randomized controlled trials involving four conditions—smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity—that are typically included in health-contingent programs.

In our review, we found mixed evidence that employees with these conditions have higher health costs than other employees, which undermines the argument that employees with the conditions are particularly effective targets for incentives. We also found little evidence that working-age people change their behavior as a result of financial incentives, particularly over the long term.

These findings suggest that program savings may not, in fact, derive from health improvements. Instead, they may come from making workers with health risks pay more for their health care than workers without health risks do.

Wellness programs are running into resistance at Penn State, as Professor Williams notes below. As the Harvard Business Review blog notes,

Penn State University’s wellness program has become every human resources director’s worst nightmare: national news. . . . [E]ven the major academic proponents of conventional wellness programs don’t think they save money, that vendors make up savings numbers, that the screens they insisted upon can’t even theoretically save money and a whole body of research opposes them, and that all the extra preventive doctor visits they required were useless

The fusion of the nanny state and the nanny corporation is not a pretty sight.  Professor Wendy Mariner recognized problems with wellness programs years ago; too bad the architects of these programs are not paying more attention to her work.

[FP]

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