Workplace wellness programs have been around for a long time. They gained national prominence during the Obama administration at the time the president and Congress were putting together the Affordable Care Act — aka — ObamaCare.
Here’s the purpose:
• To improve the health of employees
• To reduce the health care costs of employers
Damon Jones of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his researchers used 3,300 school employees to test the theory that workplace wellness programs don’t work all that well. They gave all but 1,534 workers access to iThrive. It’s a workplace wellness program close to what many companies offer to workers.
The 1,534 people are the control group of the experiment.
Jones and his co-authors published the results of their study in the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Here’s how the study went. Those given iThrive were split randomly into six groups. All were offered:
• A biometric screening
• A health assessment
• Classes on chronic disease management, tai chi and fitness
Where what was offered differed was via incentives. Some were paid $350 for completing all steps. Others were awarded $50. And the reason was so researchers could answer these questions:
• Do wellness programs have any effects on health outcomes, medical spending and other measures including productivity
• Researchers say no one has been able to say yes or no to that one
• Can money spur more people to participate
• Many programs have trouble with enrollment so they use money as an incentive and the researchers wanted to know if that works
• Who’s most likely to participate
• If only healthy people participate then the programs don’t achieve much
Jones and his group noted that hundreds of studies have been done on the efficacy of wellness programs. The results are mixed. A study by the RAND Corporation found they don’t reduce health costs for companies. One done in 2010 said they do help reduce costs.
What they have in common is looking at the difference in the spending on health care of employees doing wellness programs and those that don’t.
Jones and his researchers found wellness programs — even with incentives like cash — don’t change the behavior employees all that much. And the reason he believes he’s hit the proverbial nail-on-the-head is because of the randomly created control group — those people who got nothing at all; no iThrive, no incentives.
“Our results are significantly different. They rule out the kind of effects you find in nearly 80 percent of those prior studies,” he said.
Here’s what his conclusions are based upon:
• Money isn’t much of an incentive
• Without cash offered just under half completed the assessment and screening
• The $100 reward for completing the screening only got that rate up to 59%
• Doubling the reward to $200 made it go up a measly 4 points to 63%
The group also studied health insurance claims throughout the year and saw very little in better health outcomes or lower costs from a wellness program. The medical spending habits of those employees with a wellness program and those without are virtually identical.
The oddest outcome is not so odd when thought about for a bit. It turns out the people most likely to take advantage of employer wellness programs are healthy people who don’t spend a lot on health care anyway. Employees with the highest costs are those who are the least likely to participate.
As a last note to this study, the researchers found wellness had zero impact on job satisfaction or productivity.
University of Illinois researcher David Molitor said one of the flaws in the research — and it may be a minor one — is that some studies find wellness programs can take up to three-years to yield benefits. Jones’ research was for just a year.
“It is possible that effects will emerge in the long run,” Molitor said.
He does — however — have his doubts since the control group who didn’t get iThrive had slightly lower health insurance claims than those who had access to the program. Molitor’s group looked at how often the wellness program participants went to the gym or for a run just to see if it inspired better, healthier behaviors.
It didn’t and “We don’t see anything trending toward savings,” Molitor said.
Looking at the subject from another side, a study by the Society of Human Resource Management says a study of wellness programs by IBIS World found it to be a highly paid industry. In 2011 — less than a year after ObamaCare was signed into law — the industry brought in about $1 billion a year. By 2017 the annual spending was $6.8 billion.
Source link: Insurance Journal