Tag Archives: overdiagnosis

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.

Are Obamacare Wellness Programs Soon to Be Outlawed?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit Aug. 20 against a Wisconsin company, Orion Energy Systems, which severely penalized and then fired an employee who refused to participate in the type of wellness program now encouraged by the Affordable Care Act. The EEOC is arguing that there was “no business necessity” for this program and that the exam and other intrusive screening were “not job-related.”

If the EEOC were to prove that the standards it cites (part of the Americans with Disabilities Act) apply to wellness programs, this has strong implications for the Insurance Thought Leadership community. This could spell the end of workplace wellness generally, and specifically could expose your clients with penalty-based or mandatory medical wellness programs to similar lawsuits.

Although the White House is probably hoping the EEOC loses, winning this suit should be a layup. It can easily be shown that medical wellness programs are not job-related and have no business necessity. Quite the contrary, the three most basic provisions of “medicalizing” the workplace with wellness — health risk assessments (HRAs), biometric screens and enforced doctor visits — are more likely to harm employees than benefit them.

HRAs makes employees disclose things like whether they routinely examine their testicles (which men are not supposed to do) or whether women intend to become pregnant. These HRAs then also give feedback with no basis in medicine, such as recommending a prostate cancer test that the federal government strongly advises against and perpetuating the myth that all women under 50 should get regular mammograms.

Biometric screens pose an even greater risk to health than HRAs. Although medical societies are urging fewer screenings to avoid overdiagnosis and overtreatment, employer human resource departments can’t get enough of them, thanks to incentives created by Obamacare. The inevitable consequence: More people identified for “early intervention” to treat clinically insignificant conditions. For instance, an overzealous Nebraska colonoscopy screen caused the state’s vendor to trumpet that it saved the lives of 514 state employees who never had cancer in the first place. Yet instead of calling for an investigation, the state promoted this and other equally fallacious results successfully enough to win their program  the C. Everett Koop wellness award.

Biometric screens usually include weigh-ins and penalties for refusing to participate (or, sometimes, for not losing weight). Shaming people into losing weight is unhealthy and unproductive, and body image issues reinforced by workplace “biggest loser contests” affect 20 million women and can be fatal.  Meanwhile, weight has only a slight effect on health spending during the working years, and, if economic incentives could generate sustained weight loss, Oprah Winfrey would have kept her weight off instead of giving up her lucrative Optifast endorsement contract. Medical science has no clue what causes obesity. Some novel theories are being proposed, but, whatever the cause, Obamacare-inspired fines are not the cure.

Forcing employees to go to the doctor when they aren’t sick is perhaps the most curious and expensive wellness requirement. The clinical literature is quite clear about the futility of this custom, which may do more harm than good. Obviously checkups can’t save money if all they do is increase diagnoses and treatments with no offsetting benefit to actual health. Perhaps employee checkups are job-related in a few fields – public safety, airlines, sports, adventure travel – but otherwise it’s hard to see how worthless checkups improve an employee’s ability to answer the phone or do most other typical job-related tasks.

The ADA standard is “business necessity,” meaning these hazards and punishment might be acceptable if money was being saved or morale was being improved, but – as the book Surviving Workplace Wellness shows, quite the opposite is true. No wellness vendor has ever shown savings that weren’t obviously made up, and most won’t defend their own claims. Even Nebraska somehow “found” huge savings despite all these unnecessary cancer treatments and no meaningful change in employee health, savings claims that their vendor now refuses to defend. Further, the wellness industry’s own recently published analysis shows no savings.

Likewise, morale impacts are so negative that CVS and Penn State employees rose up in revolt against them. Increasing employee resistance also explains why employers have needed to almost triple fines since 2009 (now averaging $594) against employees who refuse to allow their companies to pry, poke and prod them.

Perhaps Orion Energy’s defense could be that trying to control employee health behaviors and fining employees who eat too many Twinkies is a “business necessity” because it shows employees who’s the boss. There is, after all, no provision in employment law that requires employers to be nice.

That defense might win the suit but also generate some headlines worthy of late-night talk shows.  Still it’s hard to imagine any other defense succeeding.

Insurance brokers and consultants need to follow developments closely. If the suit succeeds, you’ll need to caution your clients to scale back on “playing doctor” with employees, and certainly on penalties for non-compliance. Orion’s penalty was draconian – a few hundred dollars in fines is probably still OK. Focusing wellness efforts on less sexy issues like serving healthy food and getting employees to exercise more should also keep your clients out of trouble.

The worst development would be a flood of these lawsuits, but we at ITL will follow up with what you can do to avoid being one of the targets.