Tag Archives: mercer

Wellness War Is Over; Wellness Lost

What if we told you that “pry, poke, prod and punish” wellness programs are bad for morale, damage corporate reputations and cost more money than they save?

You’d say: “Al, you, Tom Emerick and more recently Vik Khanna have been telling us that for years.” You might add: “And while your opinions are usually well-reasoned and based on good data, we’d have to hear the true believers’ side of the story.”

But what if we told you: “That is the true believers’ side of the story”?

Yep, the wellness industry’s leading luminaries – 39 of them, representing 27 vendors and one consulting firm (Mercer) — have all gotten together under the aegis of both their trade associations – Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Population Health Alliance (PHA) — and reached that “consensus.”

We don’t know if they simply didn’t read their own report before reaching this consensus, or whether they just all decided to tell the truth. Frankly, we’re fine either way. (This is also the second time in five months that a major wellness true believer admitted wellness doesn’t save money. The first time was a meta-analysis in the American Journal of Health Promotion that concluded that “randomized clinical trials show a negative ROI.” After we started quoting the analysis, the editor wrote a 2,000-word essay walking it back.)

Because our claim that we are laying out “the true believers’ side of the story” would otherwise require a certain suspension of disbelief, we are going to rely more heavily than usual on screenshots. We also recommend reading the report itself, or at a minimum our analyses of it. (Our analyses are going to be a 10-part cycle. Make sure to “follow” the website They Said What? to not miss a single episode.)

Page 10 of the report lists 12 elements of cost. The first element itself contains about 12 elements, making this a list of 23 elements of cost. (Add consulting fees, which were overlooked even though three Mercer consultants sat on the committee and even though page 14 calls for use of “consulting expertise,” and you get 24.)

You’ll see damage to employee morale and corporate reputations listed as “tangential costs.” But, as two people who run a company, we would call damage to those intangibles much more than tangential. Our company runs on morale. Pulling people away from their workstations to poke them with needles, weigh them, measure their waists and test to see if they are lying about their smoking habits couldn’t possibly be good for morale.

We are equally curious about the blithe dismissal of legal challenges as a tangential cost. No firm wants its name dragged across the wire services because it is being sued for its wellness program (just ask CVS and Honeywell). Getting dragged into the courts (and, hence, the media) for running a wellness program isn’t a tangential cost — and it’s an unforced error.

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On Page 15, as the report discusses how to measure the return on investment, the authors select only one of those 24 costs – vendor fees – as the basis for comparison. Omitting the other 23 costs, plus incentives, makes it easier to show an ROI. The fees are listed as “$1.50 per employee per month,” or $18 a year, even though the rule of thumb is that wellness programs cost many hundreds of dollars per employee per year.

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Further in, on page 23, the authors list the related savings: $0.99 per “potentially preventable hospitalization,” abbreviated as PPH. (The fact that we have to do the math on our own by comparing figures across pages suggests this admission of losses was a gaffe rather than deliberate honesty.)

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The savings figures are based on reductions in event rates that (1) are about twice what typically gets achieved; and (2) somehow overlook the natural decline of 3% to 5% a year in cardiac events even without a wellness program.

Even without adjusting for those two mistakes, savings fall $0.51 PMPM short of vendors fees alone.

And losing $0.51 per employee per month is the best-case scenario. The “savings” includes benefits from disease management (which is not covered by the $1.50 PMPM in vendors fees), and omits the offsetting costs of all the extra doctor visits that come from overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

So, here are the two conclusions:

  • According to proponents’ own consensus, wellness loses money.
  • Even worse, their savings are wildly overstated (yes, according to government data), and their costs, by their own admission on page 10, are wildly understated.

Don’t take our word for either of these. Write to us, and we will send you an ROI spreadsheet that you can use to do your own calculations.

One way or the other, what RAND’s Soeren Mattke called the wellness wars are over. Wellness has surrendered.

How Will the Wellness Industry Respond?

HERO and its assembled luminaries will probably ignore this gaffe, to prevent a news cycle that their customers might notice. However, if the problem gets covered broadly, they will respond. This was their modus operandi the last time they got “outed.” We had shown them in 2011 that one of their key slides, for which they even gave themselves an award, was made up. We presented our proof many times and even put it in both our books…but it wasn’t until Health Affairs shined a bright light on it that they acknowledged wrongdoing. They said that the slide “was unfortunately mislabeled” by an as-yet-unidentified culprit, but that no one noticed for four years. (Rather than relabeling the slide in a “more fortunate” way, they took the slide off the site.)

To clarify that their position is indefensible, we have offered a reward of $1 milliion for them to simply convince a panel of Harvard mathematicians that they have any idea what they are talking about beyond the fact of the gaffe itself.  Their refusal to claim this reward speaks volumes.

Implications for Brokers

The implications for brokers are profound. First, stop placing wellness programs — or at a minimum get a “release” from your clients saying that they’ve read this article but want to proceed anyway. The disclosure by the wellness industry’s own trade association that wellness loses money increases your liability because you “knew or should have known” that losses were to be expected. Second, you can probably offer your client the chance to abrogate vendor contracts, especially if the vendor was one of the 27 that reached this “consensus.” That might reduce your revenue in the short term but will cement your relationship. And you want your clients to find out about wellness’ problems from you, not from the media.

But whatever else you do, follow future installments here on Insurance Thought Leadership as we plow through this report and deconstruct more of not just their crowd-sourced math but also of their crowd-sourced alternative to reality, in which prying into employees’ personal lives, poking them with needles in blatant disregard for government guidelines, prodding them to get worthless checkups and punishing them when they don’t is all somehow going to save employers millions of dollars.

11 Questions for Ron Goetzel on Wellness

We thank Ron Goetzel, representing Truven Health and Johns Hopkins, for posting on Insurance Thought Leadership a rebuttal to our viral November posting, “Workplace Wellness Shows No Savings.” Paradoxically, while he conceived and produced the posting, we are happy to publicize it for him. If you’ve heard that song before, think Mike Dukakis’s tank ride during his disastrous 1988 presidential campaign.

Goetzel’s rebuttal, “The Value of Workplace Wellness Programs,” raises at least 11 questions that he has been declining to answer. We hope he will respond here on ITL. And, of course, we are happy to answer any specific questions he would ask us, as we think we are already doing in the case of the point he raises about wellness-sensitive medical events. (We offer, for the third time, to have a straight-up debate and hope that he reconsiders his previous refusals.)

Ron:

(1)    How can you say you are not familiar with measuring wellness-sensitive medical events (WSMEs), like heart attacks? Your exact words are: “What are these events? Where have they been published? Who has peer-reviewed them?” Didn’t you yourself just review an article on that very topic, a study that we ourselves had hyperlinked as an example of peer-reviewed WSMEs in the exact article of ours that you are rebutting now? WSMEs are the events that should decline because of a wellness program. Example: If you institute a wellness program aimed at avoiding heart attacks, you’d measure the change in the number of heart attacks across your population as a “plausibility test” to see if the program worked, just like you’d measure the impact of a campaign to avoid teenage pregnancies by observing the change in the rate of teenage pregnancies. We’re not sure why you think that simple concept of testing plausibility using WSMEs needs peer review. Indeed, we don’t know how else one would measure impact of either program, which is why the esteemed Validation Institute recognizes only that methodology. (In any event, you did already review WMSEs in your own article.) We certainly concur with your related view that randomized controlled trials are impractical in workplace settings (and can’t blame you for avoiding them, given that your colleague Michael O’Donnell’s journal published a meta-analysis showing RCTs have negative ROIs).

(2)    How do you reconcile your role as Highmark’s consultant for the notoriously humiliating, unpopular and counterproductive Penn State wellness program with your current position that employees need to be treated with “respect and dignity”? Exactly what about Penn State’s required monthly testicle check and $1,200 fine on female employees for not disclosing their pregnancy plans respected the dignity of employees?

(3)    Which of your programs adhere to U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) screening guidelines and intervals that you now claim to embrace? Once again, we cite the Penn State example, because it is in the public domain — almost nothing about that program was USPSTF-compliant, starting with the aforementioned testicle checks.

(4)    Your posting mentions “peer review” nine times. If peer review is so important to wellness true believers,  how come none of your colleagues editing the three wellness promotional journals (JOEM, AJPM and AJHP) has ever asked either of us to peer-review a single article, despite the fact that we’ve amply demonstrated our prowess at peer review by exposing two dozen fraudulent claims on They Said What?, including exposés of four companies represented on your Koop Award committee (Staywell, Mercer, Milliman and Wellsteps) along with three fraudulent claims in Koop Award-winning programs?

(5)    Perhaps the most popular slide used in support of wellness-industry ROI actually shows the reverse — that motivation, rather than the wellness programs themselves, drives the health spending differential between participants and non-participants. How do we know that? Because on that Eastman Chemical-Health Fitness Corp. slide (reproduced below), significant savings accrued and were counted for 2005 – the year before the wellness program was implemented. Now you say 2005 was “unfortunately mislabeled” on that slide. Unless this mislabeling was an act of God, please use the active voice: Who mislabeled this slide for five years; where is the person’s apology; and why didn’t any of the analytical luminaries on your committee disclose this mislabeling even after they knew it was mislabeled? The problem was noted in both Surviving Workplace Wellness and the trade-bestselling, award-winning Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, which we know you’ve read because you copied pages from it before Wiley & Sons demanded you stop? Was it because HFC sponsors your committee, or was it because Koop Committee members lack the basic error identification skills taught in courses on outcomes analysis that no committee member has ever passed?

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(6)    Why doesn’t anyone on the Koop Committee notice any of these “unfortunate mislabelings” until several years after we point out that they are in plain view?

(7)    Why is it that every time HFC admits lying, the penalty that you assess — as president of the Koop Award Committee — is to anoint their programs as “best practices” in health promotion? (See Eastman Chemical and Nebraska in the list below.) Doesn’t that send a signal that Dr. Koop might have objected to?

(8)    Whenever HFC publishes lengthy press releases announcing that its customers received the “prestigious” Koop Award, it always forgets to mention that it sponsors the awards. With your post’s emphasis on “the spirit of full disclosure” and “transparency,” why haven’t you insisted HFC disclose that it finances the award (sort of like when Nero used to win the Olympics because he ran them)?

(9)    Speaking of “best practices” and Koop Award winners, HFC’s admitted lies about saving the lives of 514 cancer victims in its award-winning Nebraska program are technically a violation of the state’s anti-fraud statute, because HFC accepted state money and then misrepresented outcomes. Which is it: Is HFC a best practice, or should it be prosecuted for fraud?

(10)    RAND Corp.’s wellness guru Soeren Mattke, who also disputes wellness ROIs, has observed that every time one of the wellness industry’s unsupportable claims gets disproven, wellness defenders say they didn’t really mean it, and they really meant something else altogether. Isn’t this exactly what you are doing here, with the “mislabeled” slide, with your sudden epiphany about following USPSTF guidelines and respecting employee dignity and with your new position that ROI doesn’t matter any more, now that most ROI claims have been invalidated?

(11)    Why are you still quoting Katherine Baicker’s five-year-old meta-analysis claiming 3.27-to-1 savings from wellness in (roughly) 16-year-old studies, even though you must be fully aware that she herself has repeatedly disowned it and now says: “There are very few studies that have reliable data on the costs and benefits”? We have offered to compliment wellness defenders for telling the truth in every instance in which they acknowledge all her backpedaling whenever they cite her study. We look forward to being able to compliment you on truthfulness when you admit this. This offer, if you accept it, is an improvement over our current Groundhog Day-type cycle where you cite her study, we point out that she’s walked it back four times, and you somehow never notice her recantations and then continue to cite the meta-analysis as though it’s beyond reproach.

To end on a positive note, while we see many differences between your words and your deeds, let us give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you mean what you say and not what you do. In that case, we invite you to join us in writing an open letter to Penn State, the Business Roundtable, Honeywell, Highmark and every other organization (including Vik Khanna’s wife’s employer) that forces employees to choose between forfeiting large sums of money and maintaining their dignity and privacy. We could collectively advise them to do exactly what you now say: Instead of playing doctor with “pry, poke, prod and punish” programs, we would encourage employers to adhere to USPSTF screening guidelines and frequencies and otherwise stay out of employees’ personal medical affairs unless they ask for help, because overdoctoring produces neither positive ROIs nor even healthier employers. And we need to emphasize that it’s OK if there is no ROI because ROI doesn’t matter.

As a gesture to mend fences, we will offer a 50% discount to all Koop Committee members for the Critical Outcomes Report Analysis course and certification, which is also recognized by the Validation Institute. This course will help your committee members learn how to avoid the embarrassing mistakes they consistently otherwise make and (assuming you institute conflict-of-interest rules as well to require disclosure of sponsorships) ensure that worthy candidates win your awards.

The Wellness Industry Pleads the Fifth

The wellness industry’s latest string of stumbles and misdeeds are on the verge of overwhelming the cloud’s capacity to keep track of them.

First, as readers of my column may recall, is the C. Everett Koop Award Committee’s refusal to rescind Health Fitness Corp.’s (HFC’s) award even after HFC admitted having lied about saving the lives of 514 cancer victims. (As luck would have it, the “victims” never had cancer in the first place.) Curiously, HFC’s customers have won an amazing number of these Koop awards, which are given for “population health promotion and improvement programs.” Why so many, you might ask? Is HFC that good? Well, HFC is not just a winner of the Koop Award. HFC is also a major sponsor. Perhaps it was an oversight that HFC omitted this detail from its announcement that both Koop Awards were won by its customers for 2012.

Second, the American Heart Association (AHA) recently announced its guidelines for workplace screenings. They call for much more screening than the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does. As it happens, the AHA guidelines were co-written by a senior executive from Staywell, a screening vendor. Not just any vendor, but one that had already been caught making up outcomes.

Third, although the American Journal of Health Promotion published a meta-analysis that showed a degree of integrity rare for the wellness industry, it then hedged the conclusion. The analysis showed that high-quality studies on wellness outcomes demonstrated “a negative ROI in randomly controlled trials.” But the journal then added that invalid studies (generally comparing active, motivated participants to non-motivated non-participants) showed a positive return. The journal said that if you averaged the results of the invalid and the valid studies you got an ROI greater than break-even. However, the averaging logic leading to that conclusion is a bit like “averaging” Ptolemy and Copernicus to conclude that the earth revolves halfway around the sun.

How does the wellness industry respond to criticisms like these three? It doesn’t. The industry basically pleads the Fifth.

The industry knows better than to draw attention to itself when it doesn’t control the agenda. The players know a response creates a news cycle, which they will lose — and that absent a news cycle no one other than people like you are going to read my columns and notice these misdeeds.

One co-author of the AHA guidelines wrote to my Surviving Workplace Wellness co-author, Vik Khanna, and said the AHA would respond to our “accusation” but apparently thought better of it when the lay media didn’t pick up the original story.  (As a sidebar, I replied that saying a screening vendor was writing the screening policy was an “observation,” not an “accusation,” and recommended the editors check www.dictionary.com to see the difference.)

Similarly, in the past, I have made accusations and observations about the wellness industry both in this column and on the Health Care Blog…and gotten no response. So to make things extra easy for these folks, I dispensed with statements that needed to be rebutted. Instead, I asked some simple questions. I said I would publish companies’ responses, which would create a great marketing opportunity for them…if, indeed, their responses appealed to readers.

I posted the questions on a new website called www.theysaidwhat.net.  I got only one response, from the Vitality Group. The other wellness companies allowed the questions to stand on their own, on that site.

To ferret out responses, I then did something that has probably never been done before: I offered wellness companies a bribe…to tell the truth. I said I’d pay them $1,000 to simply answer the questions I posted about their public materials, which would take about 15 minutes.( If someone makes me that offer, I ask, “Where do I sign?” but I’m not a wellness vendor.)

Here’s how easy the questions are: Recall from a previous ITL posting that Wellsteps has an ROI model on its website that says it saves $1,358.85 per employee, adjusted for inflation, by 2019 no matter what you input into the model as assumptions for obesity, smoking and spending on healthcare. The company claims this $1,358.85 savings is based on “every ROI study ever published.” Compiling all those citations would require time, so I merely asked the company to name one little ROI study that supports this $1,358.85 figure. Silence.

I asked similar questions (which you can view on the click-throughs) to Aetna, Castlight, Cigna, Healthstat, Keas (which wins style points for the most creative way to misreport survey data), Pharos, Propeller Health, ShapeUp, US Corporate Wellness and Wellnet, as well as their enablers and validators, Mercer and Milliman. Propeller and Healthstat responded — but didn’t actually answer the questions. Healthstat seems to say that rules of real math don’t apply to it because it prefers its own rules of math. Propeller – having released the completely mystifying interim results of a study long before it was completed – said it looks forward to the study’s completion and didn’t even acknowledge that questions were asked.

In all fairness, one medical home vendor sent a response expressing a seemingly genuine desire to understand or clarify issues with its outcomes figures and to possibly improve their validity (if, indeed, they are invalid). As a result, I am not adding the vendor to this site; the idea is not to highlight honest and well-intentioned vendors. (The company would like its name undisclosed for now, but if anyone wants to contact it, just send me an email, and I will pass it along to the company for response.)

Likewise, there are good guys – Towers Watson and Redbrick, despite their high profiles, managed to stay off the list by keeping their hands clean (or at least washing them right before inspection). Allone, owned by Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, even had its outcomes validated and indemnified. I will announce more validated and indemnified vendors in a followup posting.

As for the others, well, I am not saying that their historic and continuing strategy of pleading the Fifth when asked to explain themselves means that they know their statements are wrong. Nor am I saying that they are liars, idiots or anything of the sort. Something like that would be an “accusation.” Instead, I am merely making an “observation.”

It isn’t even my observation. It is credited to Confucius:  “A man who makes a mistake and does not correct it, is committing another mistake.”