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How to Optimize Healthcare Benefits

Based on the trend toward value-based health insurance and reimbursement, health benefit plans are being designed to reduce barriers to maintaining and improving health and to promote higher-value healthcare services.

Value-based reimbursement requires providers to track and report a host of adverse events and population health measures, including biometrics, patient engagement and other measures required to demonstrate quality performance. Unlike the traditional fee-for-service model, value-based care attempts to align incentives of providers to deliver the right care in the right setting in lieu of maximizing the revenue of each encounter by delivering more services.

Providers receive incentives to use standardized, evidence-based medicine, engage patients, upgrade health IT and use more advanced data analytics to optimize their clinical and financial performance. When patients receive more coordinated, appropriate and effective care, providers are rewarded.

Accessing Care Quality and Safety Data

Plan sponsors and their benefits consultants or brokers who advise them need access to information about care cost, along with the quality and safety performance of those hospitals and physicians delivering care to their plan members.

See also: Taming of the Skew in Healthcare Data  

Quality measures are essential in optimizing the benefits of value-based models for all stakeholders. Success for all stakeholders depends upon how well healthcare providers can manage quality of care within tighter financial parameters.

This presents an opportunity for benefits consultants and brokers who are well-positioned to act as trusted advisers in educating and defining how best to design benefits plans to optimize for value. As educators and advocates, they can guide plan sponsors toward partners who will help them evaluate provider quality and safety.

Research shows that many U.S. employers that offer health insurance to employees are unfamiliar with objective metrics of health plan quality information. This gives benefits consultants and brokers an opportunity to outline the advantages of evaluating hospital quality to ensure that plan designs and benefits options include only high-quality hospitals and physicians who provide services at the lowest costs and encourage plan members through incentives to avail themselves to this narrower group of providers.

The Challenge: Hospital Ranking Variability

The significant challenge is the prevalence of numerous hospital quality rating methodologies. Even the slightest differences in adjustment methodology, data source, time period and inclusion/exclusion rules can produce differences in the hospital or physician ratings. This variation makes it more difficult for hospitals and physicians to prioritize and improve the quality of care delivered.

For instance, hospital ranking organizations, such as U.S. News & World Report, Healthgrades, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and Leapfrog, reflect substantially different results, fostering confusion to those less literate in healthcare analytics. In 2016, CMS gave 102 hospitals its top rating of five stars, but only a few of those were considered as the nation’s best by private ratings sources such as U.S. News & World Report or viewed as the most elite within the medical profession. First-tier academic journals like JAMA expressed deep concern about the lack of academic credibility in the methods used to assess performance and aggregate the conclusions into a single rating across many different measures.

Plan sponsors and their benefits consultants or brokers must educate themselves on assessing provider quality. While there is a myriad of rating services, many do not include elements essential to a precise and comprehensive assessment of providers.

See also: Healthcare Data: The Art and the Science  

Ratings approaches that use reputation or self-reported data should be considered less reliable than objective outcomes measures using patient level claims data. Additionally, hospital overall surveys or patient reported outcomes do not offer a valid basis for comparison. It is also not possible to use a single outcome measure – for example, risk-adjusted mortality — as a proxy for all outcomes like complications or readmissions because provider performance varies widely across measures. For a comprehensive assessment, all available measures should be incorporated for a specific clinical category. Lastly, aggregating outcomes data into composite scores must be scientifically sound.

As more employers seek greater value for their healthcare dollars, and as benefits consultants and brokers continue to pursue opportunities to help them reduce the upward cost spiral, quality ratings are an important first step toward realizing these goals and advancing the quest for improved employee health.

3 Perspectives on Opioid Crisis in WC

Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of opioids in workers’ compensation. Opioids are being prescribed for many conditions for which they were not originally intended. Efforts have begun across the U.S. to create opioid treatment guidelines, change medical practice patterns and curb the opioid epidemic. While much has been written recently about the unintended consequences of opioid use, such as how they increase pain sensitivity and level of disability and can lead to addiction, there is little information available about the perspectives of the key players in workers’ compensation on the opioid issue.

Mark Pew, a prominent managed care organization’s spokesman, has said, “Using opioids as a crutch really is the wrong thing. What you need to be focusing on is coping with it and managing it like the vast majority of humanity does with chronic pain or just the fact of getting old.” But what do the injured workers, physicians and claims adjusters say? I conducted confidential interviews with members of each of these groups to get the perspectives of those who so far have had less of a voice in the debate.

Physicians

Physicians must balance their desire to control their patients’ pain against the known drawbacks of opioids. One physician told me, “When I was in medical school 20 years ago, we were told that we were undertreating pain. Pain was named ‘the fifth vital sign’ (along with blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature), and we were trained to ask patients about their level of pain on a 10-point scale at every visit. At that time, very little was known about the dangers of long-term opioid use. Now, patients with any kind of pain have come to expect to get that narcotics prescription when they see the doctor.”

See also: How to Attack the Opioid Crisis  

Interestingly, in response to the current opioid crisis, delegates at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Medical Association passed a resolution recommending that pain be removed as the fifth vital sign in professional medical standards. Critics, many of them pain management specialists, say the move “will make it even more difficult for pain sufferers to have their pain properly diagnosed and treated.” However, a 2006 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine concluded that “routinely measuring pain by the fifth vital sign did not increase the quality of pain management.”

Another physician, a medical director at an insurance carrier, said, “When I see the second opioid prescription come through the system, I start reserving for detox.” She meant the second opioid prescription is an indication to her that there is a high likelihood the injured worker is going to become addicted to the opioids.

Claims Adjusters

Claims adjusters have a unique perspective on the direction a workers’ comp claim takes. They usually speak with both the injured worker and the provider and can influence the process to a certain extent. One claims adjuster said, “I’ve been watching the whole opioid crisis unfold for the last 10 years. We see the opioid prescriptions coming through, and we know that many of them are not indicated by the patient’s condition, but we have limited options for preventing problems. It would be nice if we could identify the providers with good prescribing patterns and direct injured workers to those providers.”

Another claims adjuster told me, “In states with drug formularies, where opioids require prior approval, we are seeing much less opioid use on new claims. Our biggest problems are the older claims where the injured workers have been taking opioids for long periods of time. Then we start to see the prescribing of additional drugs just to treat the side effects of the opioids. The worker is already addicted, is not even getting adequate pain relief anymore, and the claim just goes on and on.”

This claims adjuster thought the best approach to the opioid problem would be to have a claims management system that alerted managers every time a new claim had an opioid prescribed. That way, “we could immediately contact the physician and make sure there was an understanding of the opioid treatment guidelines and a plan in place, right from the start, for weaning the injured worker off the drugs at the appropriate time.”

Injured Workers

In the current climate of awareness about the risks and dangers of opioids, injured workers are often caught in the middle. They must balance their desire for pain control against their growing concerns about side effects and long-term adverse effects. One injured worker said, “I know I’m getting less pain relief than I used to from the pills, but I’m reluctant to tell my physician because I’m afraid of having to deal with my pain on my own. I’d rather suffer with the side effects I’m accustomed to than risk being in constant pain again.”

Another injured worker told me, “I went from eight pills a day to being totally opioid-free, but it took two stints in rehab and a whole lot of willpower. It’s a seductive thought, to place your trust regarding pain relief in a pill, but it’s not a long-term solution. The pills have too many disadvantages. Sooner or later you have to get off the pills and take control of your pain using other methods.” This injured worker has achieved an acceptable level of pain relief using over-the-counter medication and by practicing mindfulness.

A third injured worker reported, “I’ve been on opioids for two years now. My doctor keeps refilling the prescription, so I keep taking the pills. I have a lot of side effects, but it’s worth it to keep my pain under control. I don’t want to make any changes in my regimen and risk being in pain again. I find the negative publicity about opioids very scary. I guess someday I’ll quit them, but just not right now.”

In conclusion, injured workers, providers and claims adjusters are all seeking the right way to deal with pain. Injured workers in pain need pain relief, but they also need non-pharmacologic pain management techniques. Most treatment guidelines in workers’ compensation now recommend opioids only for acute, post-surgical pain relief for three to seven days, ideally. They are not recommended for chronic, musculoskeletal pain, e.g., for pain lasting longer than three months. Providers must take responsibility for engaging their injured workers in an active pain-management process. It doesn’t have to be a formal program; it can be an agreement between doctor and patient. Doctors have to be ready for this responsibility if they prescribe opioids; it’s poor practice — and violates the physician’s imperative to “do no harm” — to prescribe something addictive if you are not able to assist the injured worker with the weaning process.

See also: Opioids: A Stumbling Block to WC Outcomes  

For their part, injured workers must accept the necessity of being actively involved in their pain management and buy into not taking pills long-term that are going to result in more harm than good. They should demand that their prescribing physician discuss the medication plan with them, what the adverse effects are and what the weaning process will be like.

Finally, claims adjusters have the responsibility to be on the lookout for opioid prescriptions and to make sure that providers are prescribing them within guidelines. There are technological solutions for this. The best approach to the opioid crisis is a team approach: providers, claims adjusters and injured workers working together to avoid opioid dependence and maximize recovery, restoration of function and lasting relief from pain.

To Be or Not to Be (Vaccinated)?

For many years, Americans did not need to worry about contracting the once-widespread disease called the measles. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially declared measles eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. In January 2015 alone, there were already more confirmed cases in the U.S. than are typically diagnosed in a full year. Public health officials are very concerned and have moved to aggressively contain this very contagious, but 100% preventable, disease. The current outbreak and surge in confirmed cases of measles, most notably in California, has been scientifically linked by researchers from MIT and Boston’s Children Hospital to the outbreak that began in Disneyland in December 2014. Medical researchers believe the spread of the current measles outbreak is solely because of low vaccination rates in certain communities based on a widespread but false link between childhood immunizations and autism. International health officials have called the link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism “the most damaging public health hoax in the past 100 years.”

Just last week on April 21, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released the findings of a comprehensive study using the health insurance data base of 95,000 children and found no overall link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The study also found no link for children with an autistic sibling. The study did find a lower vaccination rate for the younger siblings of children with autism based on parents’ continued fears of a link. The JAMA study authors from the Lewin Group in Falls Church, Va., stated; “Consistent with studies in other populations, we observed no association between MMR vaccine and increased ASD (autism spectrum disorder) risk among privately insured children.”

Despite the overwhelming medical evidence that the MMR vaccine is both very safe and highly effective, anti-vaccination groups still dispute the facts and are warning parents not to be pressured into having their children vaccinated, which is the crux of this public health problem. On the same day that the JAMA study was released, CBS Evening News ran a segment on the current U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, or “America’s Doctor,” who appeared on Sesame Street to promote childhood vaccinations. CBS closed the segment with; “Vaccination critics don’t see anything cute about this video after the controversy over the recent measles outbreak.” Really? There is no controversy. It was all based on a documented hoax.

The original belief that vaccinations cause autism was based on a reported study in 1988 by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in the U.K., which has since been 100% completely discredited. His report unnecessarily panicked many parents around the world, causing a sharp decline in the number of children getting the MMR vaccine. The false claims and widespread panic began when a British medical journal, the Lancet, published Wakefield’s article. It was later determined that the author had multiple conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence and had broken ethical research codes of conduct, including accepting funding by attorneys involved in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. The Lancet fully retracted the article, but not until 2010, when the editor-in-chief stated that the link was “totally false” and that the world-famous medical journal was “deceived.” The Canadian Medical Journal in 2010 went on to state that the original research included a “callous disregard” for the “carefully selected” study group of only 12 children and that “several elements of this research were incorrect and contrary to findings of an earlier investigation.” Dr. Wakefield subsequently lost his license to practice medicine in the U.K as a result of this fraudulent research.

These are the facts that parents need to know about the measles. Symptoms typically begin with a high fever, runny nose, sore throat and cough, which can easily be misdiagnosed as a simple cold or the flu. The incubation period is between seven and 18 days of exposure to the virus. It is very dangerous because people are contagious up to four days before the red rash appears and likely do not know they are infected. In addition, a room can still be contaminated as long as two hours after an infected person leaves. A single infected person can spread the disease to between 11 and 18 people. An unvaccinated person has a 90% chance of infection if exposed to the virus. The risk of serious complications and death is even greater for adults and infants than for children and teenagers. Rubella, known as the German measles, is also caused by the virus and is usually a mild form of the disease but is a very serious infection that causes miscarriages, still births or birth defects in unborn children when pregnant women get the disease.

Most people born prior to 1957 had the measles. The disease was once so prevalent that in New York City, in the first 10 weeks of 1933 alone, there were 10,000 cases and 434 deaths. The first vaccines developed began in 1958 and became widely available in 1963. Prior to 1963, there were three to four million cases of measles reported each year in the U.S., with 400 to 500 reported deaths annually.

Although many parents in the anti-vaccination movement believe the measles is not dangerous and the MMR vaccine is, the medical facts state otherwise. In fact, from 2001 to 2013, 28% of children in the U.S. with the measles had to be hospitalized. Public health officials fear that many more cases will develop from this outbreak of a very preventable disease, unless aggressive public health measures are undertaken. What is required is an extensive education campaign including widespread vaccination of the unvaccinated U.S. population, starting with infants at 12 months and a booster shot at age four to six, prior to pre-school or kindergarten. Unvaccinated adults also need to be vaccinated.

There are a number of myths associated with the measles vaccination that keep some parents from protecting their children. The controversy surrounding the anti-vaccination movement is based largely on parents’ philosophical beliefs against the vaccination. Dr. James Cherry, a pediatric infectious disease expert at UCLA, believes that the recent outbreak in California is “100% connected to the anti-immunization campaign.” He went on the say that there are “some pretty dumb people out there.”

Medical researchers from MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital documented that the rapid spread of measles from the Disneyland outbreak, beginning in mid-December 2014, indicated a significant percentage of the population exposed had low vaccination rates. These researchers determined that the exposed population rate might have been as low as 50% and likely no higher than 86%. These rates are well below the 96%-99% level known as “herd immunity,” which is required to prevent future outbreaks.

The anti-vaccination movement includes those parents who believe that there is no medical risk from not vaccinating their child, that the disease is extinct, that doctors and drug companies push vaccinations for their own profit, and that you can get the measles from the vaccination. Still others believe the false and discredited link to autism. For the parents who are against vaccination, they not only put their own children at risk, they dramatically increase the risk for the general population who are unable to get the vaccination, such as infants under the age of one, and children and adults with weak immune systems, including people with cancer and other diseases.

Measles is still widespread throughout the world. Travelers from overseas continue to bring the disease into the U.S on a daily basis. The anti-vaccination conspiracy movement belief that doctors and insurance companies promote the vaccination to increase profit is absurd and is negated by the fact that health insurance companies pay for the vaccinations at no cost to the patient. Similar to the flu shot that is a dead virus from which someone cannot get the flu, it is almost impossible to get the measles from the MMR vaccine.

The CDC states there is a 1 in 3,000 chance of a mild allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine but a 90% chance of infection if an unvaccinated child is exposed to the virus. Parents should do the math. In addition, a blood product containing an immune globulin is available for people who are medically unable to immunize with the MMR vaccine for any reason.

What parents need to know is that the scientific community has found no evidence whatsoever of a link between MMR vaccine and autism or any other childhood development disorder. In addition to the just-released JAMA study, large epidemiological studies conducted by the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.K. National Health Services all found no link between MMR and autism. This original false research has done significant damage to the field of public health and has done serious harm to children of parents who were misled by this report, which resulted in unnecessary deaths, severe impairment and permanent injury in unvaccinated children. Because of wide dissemination of this discredited link, there were many lawsuits by parents with children with autism, but a special court convened by the National Vaccination Injury Compensation program denied all compensation claims in U.S. federal court against manufacturers of the vaccine in 2009.

The recent measles outbreak in California is what has spiked the “controversy” over vaccinations, which has made the national news in 2015 including; CNN, the New York Times and Time Magazine. There have been 178 documented new cases of the measles by late March by the CDC, including five unvaccinated Disneyland workers in Orange County, and the outbreak is now spreading across the U.S.

Although traditional public health issues are typically rooted in poor or rural areas of the country, this current measles outbreak is concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods in California and surrounding states. Although it is reported that only 3.1% of parents in California refuse to vaccinate their children, for health or religious reasons, this number is misleading. In fact, many areas within California have double-digit exemption rates from vaccinations, with some areas as high as 50%.

The MMR vaccination is the best way to prevent disease both for the individual and the general population. It works by making the body produce anti-bodies against the virus. The measles vaccination is recommended for all people 12 months of age or older, and especially people traveling overseas. MMR vaccinations are supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic, to name just a few.

An extensive education campaign is required to overcome false and unfounded fears among parents of unvaccinated children. Legislation is needed to strengthen immunization laws requiring all school-age children to receive the measles vaccination, except for those with a medical exemption certified by a licensed physician. Public health officials should also track and verify both statewide and local immunization rates and should mandate that schools maintain an up-to-date list of pupils with exemptions so they can be excluded quickly if an outbreak occurs, temporarily exclude unvaccinated students and teachers from attending school and offer measles vaccinations for unvaccinated students and teachers.

The MMR vaccine is 99% effective and provides immunity for a lifetime. It was once considered one of the major public health campaign success stories. Now, health officials fear the potential for a public health crisis based on blatantly false research and unfounded fears. The CDC points out that people who refuse to vaccinate usually live in the same community. “When measles find its way into these communities, outbreaks are more likely to occur.” Consumers and parents should confirm with their doctor that they or their children do not have any allergic reactions to other medications. They should also verify that they do not have an immune deficiency condition, which may cause side effects and decrease the vaccine’s usefulness.

The myth that childhood vaccinations lead to autism was based largely on a completely discredited medical research hoax. This myth is still being widely perpetuated today not only by the anti-vaccination conspiracy movement led by Hollywood celebrities but also by the mainstream media.

My heart breaks for the parents of children with autism, including a close family friend. But it breaks my heart even more knowing that thousands of children are unnecessarily exposed to unimaginable consequences of birth defects and death from something so preventable. Parents need to listen to the Surgeon General, the CDC, the Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Pediatrics and not Hollywood celebrities with zero background in public health.

I would like to thank my research assistant and co-author Ms. Chandler Berke who is a public health/science undergraduate student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Obesity as Disease: A Profound Change

The obesity rate in the U.S. has doubled in the past 15 years. More than 50% of the population is overweight, with a BMI (body mass index) between 25 and 30, and 30% have a BMI greater than 30 and are considered obese. Less than 20% of the population is at a healthy weight, with a BMI less than 25.

On June 16, 2013, the American Medical Association voted to declare obesity a disease rather than a comorbidity factor, a decision that will affect 78 million adults. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the costs to U.S. businesses related to obesity exceed $13 billion each year. With the pending implementation of ICD (International Classification of Diseases) 10 codes, the reclassification of obesity is is fast becoming a reality and will dramatically affect workers’ compensation and cases related to the American Disability Act and amendments.

Before the AMA’s obesity reclassification, ICD-9 code 278 related to obesity-related medical complications rather than to obesity. The new ICD-10 coding system now identifies obesity as a disease, which needs to be addressed medically. Obesity can now become a secondary claim, and injured workers will be considered obese if they gain weight because of medications, cannot maintain a level of fitness because of a work-related injury or if their BMI exceeds 30. The conditions are all now considered work-related and must be treated as such.

The problem of obesity for employers is not confined to workers’ compensation. The Americans with Disability Act Amendment of 2008 allows for a broader scope of protection for disabilities. The classification of obesity as a disease now places an injured worker in a protected class pursuant to the ADA amendment. In fact, litigation in this area has already started. A federal district court ruled in April 2014 that obesity itself may be a disability and will be allowed to move forward under the ADA (Joseph Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Eastern District of Missouri).

Obesity as an impairment

Severe obesity is a physical impairment. A sales manager of a used car dealership was terminated for requesting accommodation and won $128,000. He was considered disabled, and the essential function of the job was walking, so he was terminated without reasonable accommodation.

The judge ruled that obesity is an accepted disability and allowed him to pursue his claim against his employer. This could have substantial impact for employers as injured workers could more easily argue that their obesity is a permanent condition that impedes their ability to return to work, as opposed to a temporary life choice that can be reversed.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has recently chimed in on obesity. According to the EEOC, severe [or morbid] obesity body weight, of more than 100% over the norm, qualifies as impairment under the ADA without proof of an underlying physiological disorder. In the last year, we have seen an increasing number of EEOC-driven obesity-related lawsuits. Federal district courts support the EEOC’s position that an employee does not have to prove an underlying condition, especially in cases where there is evidence that the employer perceived the employee’s obesity as a disability or otherwise expressed prejudice against the employee for being obese.

Workers’ compensation claims are automatically reported to CMS Medicare with a diagnosis. When the new ICD-10 codes take effect, an obesity diagnosis will be included in the claim and will require co-digital payments, future medical care or continued treatment by Medicare.

There is good news on the horizon. Reporting of a claim only happens if there is a change in condition not primarily for obesity. It is recommended that baseline testing for musculoskeletal conditions be conducted at the time of hiring and on the existing workforce. In the event of a work-related injury, if a second test is conducted that reveals no change in condition, it results in no reportable claim and no obesity issue. In the event of ADA issues, the baseline can serve to determine pre-injury condition or the need for accommodations.

What does this mean to employers?

Obesity is now considered a physical impairment that may affect an employees’ ability to perform their jobs and receive special accommodations pursuant to the ADA.

An increasingly unhealthy workforce will pose many challenges for employers in the next few years. Those that can effectively improve the health and well-being of their employee population will have a significant advantage in reducing work comp claim costs, health and welfare benefits and retaining skilled workers.

Recent studies

In a four-year study conducted by Johns Hopkins with an N value of 7,690, 85% of the injured workers studied were classified as obese. In a Duke University study involving 11,728 participants, researchers revealed that employees with a BMI greater than 40 had 11.65 claims per 100 workers, and the average claim costs were $51,010. Employees with a BMI less than 25 had 5.8 claims per 100 workers, with average claim costs of $7,503. This study found that disability costs associated with obesity are seven times higher than for those with a BMI less than 30.

A National Institute of Health study with 42,000 participants found that work-related injuries for employees with a BMI between 25 and 30 had a 15% increase in injuries, and those with a BMI higher than 30 had an increase in work-related injuries of 48%.

The connection between obesity and on the job injuries is clear and extremely costly for employers. Many employers have struggled with justifying the cost of instituting wellness programs just on the basic ROI calculations. They were limiting the potential return on investment solely to the reduction in health insurance costs rather than including the costs on the workers’ comp side of the equation and the potential for lost business opportunities because of injury rates that do not meet customer performance expectations. Another key point is that many wellness programs do not include a focus on treating chronic disease that may cause workers to be more likely to be injured and prolong the recovery period.

Customer-driven safety expectations

There are many potential customers (governments, military, energy, construction) who require that their service providers, contractors and business partners meet specific safety performance requirements as measured by OSHA statistics (recordable incident rates) and National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) rating (experience modifiers) and, in some cases, a full review by 3rd party organizations such as ISNet World.

Working for the best customers often requires that your company’s safety record be in the top 25th percentile to even qualify to bid. To be a world-class company with a world-class safety record requires an integrated approach to accident and injury prevention.

Challenges of an aging workforce

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the labor force will increase by 12.8 million by 2020. The number of workers between ages 16 and 24 will decline 14%, and the number of workers ages 25 to 54 will increase by only 1.9%. The overall share of the labor force for 25- to 54-year-olds will decline from 68% to 65%. The number of workers 55 and older is projected to grow by 28%, or 5.5 times the rate of growth in the overall labor force.

Employers must recognize the challenge that an aging workforce will bring and begin to prepare their workforce for longer careers. A healthy and physically fit 55-year-old worker is more capable and less likely to be injured than a 35-year-old worker who is considered obese.

Treating chronic disease

Employers who want a healthy work force must recognize and treat chronic disease. Many companies have biometric testing programs (health risk assessments) and track healthcare expenditures through their various providers (brokers and insurance carriers).

The results are quite disappointing. On average, only 39% of employees participate in biometric screenings even when they are provided free of charge. For those employees who do participate and who are identified with high biometric risk (blood pressure, glucose, BMI, cholesterol), fewer than 20% treat or even manage these diseases.

This makes these employees much more susceptible to injury and significantly lengthens the disability period. The resulting financial impact on employers can be devastating.

Conclusion

Best-in-class safety results will require a combined approach to reduce injuries and to accommodate new classes of disability such as obesity. It is important that employers focus on improving the health and well-being of their workforce while creating well-developed job descriptions, identifying the essential functions, assessing physical assessments and designing job demands to fall within the declining capabilities of the American workers. It is important for an employer to only accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment. This is especially true with the reclassification of obesity as a disease. Baseline testing will play an essential role in separating work-related injuries from pre-existing conditions in this changing environment.

How CDC Sparked the Wellness Legend

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.

So what?

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 overdiagnosisovertreatment 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.