February 11, 2015
How CDC Sparked the Wellness Legend
by Al Lewis and Vik Khanna
A call to action in 2009 published "arresting facts" that are certainly arresting but aren't facts -- yet have become the basis for wellness plans.
The wellness emphasis in the Affordable Care Act is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) call to action in 2009 about chronic disease: The Power to Prevent, the Call to Control. On the summary page, we learn some of what the CDC calls “arresting facts”:
- “Chronic diseases cause seven in 10 deaths each year in the U.S.”
- “About 133 million Americans — nearly one in two adults — live with at least one chronic illness.”
- “75% of our healthcare spending is on people with chronic conditions.”
Shocking — that is, in terms of how misleading or even false the claims are and of how they created the wellness legend.
Take the statement that “chronic diseases cause seven in 10 deaths.” We have to die of something. Would it be better to die of accidents? Suicides and homicides? Mercury poisoning? Side effects of measles vaccinations gone awry?
The second statistic is also a head-scratcher. Only 223 million Americans were old enough to drink in 2009; divide 133 million into that number, and you see that a whopping 60% of adults, not “nearly one in two,” live with at least one chronic illness. Sloppy math and wording is common on the CDC site, as elsewhere it says that almost one in five youths has a BMI in the 95th percentile or above, which, of course, is mathematically impossible, as is the CDC’s calculation of our risk of death.
More importantly, how is the CDC defining “chronic disease” so broadly that so many of us have at least one? Is the CDC counting back pain? Tooth decay? Dandruff? Ring around the collar? “The facts,” as the CDC calls them, are only slightly less fatuous. For instance, the CDC counts “stroke” as a chronic disease. Although a stroke is likely preceded by chronic disease (such as severe hypertension or diabetes), it is hard to imagine a more acute medical event than one in which every minute of delay in treatment increases your odds of ending up like the Kardashians.
The CDC also counts obesity, which was only designated as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in 2013 — and even then many people don’t accept that definition. Cancer also receives this designation, even though many diagnosed cancers are anything but chronic — they either go into remission or cause death. “Chronic disease” implies a need for continuing therapy and vigilance. If cancer were a chronic disease, instead of sponsoring “races for the cure,” cancer advocacy groups would sponsor “races for the control and management.” And you never hear anybody say, “I have lung cancer, but my doctor says we’re staying on top of it.”
That brings us to the last bullet point. Convention typically attributes more than 80% of healthcare costs to fewer than 20% of people, meaning that costly ailments are concentrated in a relatively small group. The implication would be that, if you address that small group, your savings are disproportionate. Instead, the CDC’s data attributes 75% of costs to about 50% of the adult population, implying almost the exact opposite of the 80-20 rule: The cost of chronic disease is widely dispersed. Indeed, if you remove the rare diseases that afflict about 1% of the population but account for about 7-8% of cost, you come very close to parity between the proportion of the population with chronic disease and the proportion of total health spending attributable to chronic disease.
This urban legend based on the CDC’s call to action, appearing verbatim more than a million times on Google, is among the single biggest causes of uncontrolled healthcare spending…and is responsible for essentially the entire wellness industry.
In reality, if you strip away the expenses of those chronically ill people unrelated to their chronic condition (which are included in the CDC’s 75% statistic); prevention and management of those conditions (ditto); those aforementioned rare diseases; and unpredictable or uncontrollable exacerbations: That 75% crumbles to about 4% of expenses that fit the category of wellness-sensitive medical events. Achieving a 10% reduction in those categories — a feat rarely accomplished, which is why vendors never disclose this figure — would reduce overall spending by 0.4%, or about $25 a year per employee or spouse. Hence, few employers would ever bother with wellness.
Instead, the CDC’s wellness legend, suggesting that 75% of costs can be attacked, encourages employers and health plans to focus on the opposite of what they should focus on. Penn State, citing this 75% statistic as justification for its controversial wellness program, provides a classic example of this wrongheaded focus, with unfortunate consequences for the university’ reputation and employee relations, with no offsetting financial benefit.
Typical of the wellness industry’s embrace of this wellness legend is Bravo Wellness — also the first wellness company to brag about generating savings by punishing employees. The company takes this fallacy a step further. It deftly substitutes the words “lifestyle-related and preventable” conditions for the CDC’s language “chronic conditions”; that implies that everyone with a chronic condition, even a congenital or unavoidable, rare condition, has only his lifestyle to blame. Vendors like Bravo encourage employers to get more employees to view themselves as chronically ill, or about to become chronically ill — and encourages them to access the system.
Encouraging overdiagnosis, overtreatment and overprescribing isn’t just a bad idea on its own. It distracts employers from real issues such as provider pricing disparities, hospital safety, outliers (the small percentage of employees who really do account for half the cost (usually not because of a chronic ailment, though) and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), whose per-drug margins are about twice what they would be if anyone spent any time weed-whacking their obfuscations of rebates, implementation fees, etc. and simply negotiated the margin directly.
What to do next?
It seems like all our posts end the same way: Stop poking your employees with needles.
We’ve debunked wellness’s science and math, its outcomes, its philosophy … and now its epidemiological premise. Even as their credibility is shredded, most wellness industry players have steadfastly refused to defend themselves at all. Instead, they avoid all debates on this site, because, although many of the vendors and consultants appear to be incapable of critical thinking, they are smart enough to realize that facts are their worst nightmare.