Tag Archives: pry

The Evil Genius of a Wellness Program

Arkansas recently contracted with an out-of-state vendor called Catapult Health to come in to the state’s schools and “play doctor” with the teachers, asking them personal questions, taking their blood and then telling them everything that’s wrong with them. This is a classic example of a “pry, poke and prod” program.

This is followed by admonishments to take more steps and eat more broccoli. The program then refers teachers into lifestyle and disease management programs “at record rates.”

Sounds terrible, but the good news is that this program isn’t going to cost taxpayers anything because, as Catapult Health’s website says:

Phew! At least it’s free to taxpayers because Catapult’s expenses and profits are “already in your budget” and “fees are processed through your health plan.”

Except that the state of Arkansas is its own health plan. There is no “Don’t worry. Insurance will pay for it” here. The state is self-insured, meaning it picks up the tab, not some nameless insurance company.

But, hey, at least this program will save money, right?

The return-on-investment for the state is allegedly 3.27-to-1, as shown by the so-called “Harvard Study,” conducted by Katherine Baicker.

Except that the Harvard study has been proven wrong, not just by the nonprofit, nonpartisan highly respected RAND Corporation (and I myself chimed in, as well), but by an ace researcher named Damon Jones, part of the prestigious National Bureau for Economic Research. His work showed that wellness accomplishes virtually nothing other than the expenditure of money. (Don’t worry—insurance will pay for it.)

See also: Wellness Vendors Keep Dreaming  

But, hey, maybe Professor Jones is wrong. After all, why should he care what Professor Baicker thinks, right?

Um, because he reports to her? Yep, he’s an associate professor at the exact same school of public health where she is now dean. Just guessing here, but it would seem a subordinate would have to be pretty darn sure of his findings (and they are rock solid, and completely in agreement with all the other recent research, summarized here) to publicly humiliate his own dean.

Even Baicker doesn’t defend her findings any more. She says: “It’s too early to tell.” That means she is running away from her very widely cited signature study, upon which essentially the entire wellness industry’s economic justification is based. This would be like Arthur Laffer, whose Laffer curve created supply-side economics, which has been used to justify two tax cuts, saying, “Well, maybe it’s not right. I dunno. Let’s wait and see.”

But, hey, at least forced wellness improves employee health, right?

Apparently not. Forcing people to get annual wellness checkups doesn’t benefit them, according to the New York Times, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association and Consumer Reports. (Before dismissing the credibility of those sources due to possible political bias, keep in mind that Newsmaxthe Federalist and Laura Ingraham hate “pry, poke and prod” programs, too.)

Forced wellness also takes teachers away from the classrooms to be pried, poked and prodded, stresses them out and hurts morale.

Further, sending “record rates” of employees into lifestyle and disease management is classic hyperdiagnosis – braggadocio-fueled misunderstandings of the arithmetic of lab results, resulting in large numbers of people getting told they need coaching and care they don’t want or, in general, need. Nothing makes a wellness vendor happier than to hyperdiagnose as many employees as possible.

But, hey, maybe teachers are a special case. Maybe the impact of “pry, poke and prod” programs is different for them?

It sure is. The single school district for which the data has been compiled is Boise, Idaho. According to the wellness vendor’s own data, the health of the teachers got somewhat worse as a result of this pry, poke and prod program. (The vendor, an outfit called Wellsteps, also admitted that it flouted clinical guidelines and fabricated its only positive outcome. The company also previously admitted that costs went way up as a result of its program. The company later suppressed that admission. Wellness vendors are not known for their integrity.)

So the health of teachers may deteriorate, creating more medical expense. but don’t worry. Insurance will pay for it.

But, hey, at least the teachers like it, right?

According to Catapult, employees love the program. Ask the employees, and you might get a different impression. Indeed, I was tipped off to this program by an Arkansas teacher who hates it, like most of her colleagues do — and that’s before they learn that they are actually paying for it…keep reading.

Obviously, if teachers wanted to submit to a “pry, poke and prod” program, the state wouldn’t have to threaten them with massive fines – almost $1,000/year, which appears to be close to a record for any “pry, poke and prod” program anywhere — for refusing to let a private, out-of-state corporation play doctor on them at state expense.

But, hey, at least the state taxpayers save money by fining the teachers who don’t want to play doctor, right?

Actually, wellness makes claims costs go up, probably by more than the fines. There are lots of unneeded lab tests and other tests. For instance, the state of Connecticut admitted that, in addition to throwing away all its money on the actual wellness program, the state spent more on health care. The state comptroller who administered the program said the increased spending was “a good thing.” I guess he wasn’t worried because insurance was paying for it.

See also: Ethics of Workplace Wellness Industry  

But, hey, at least the teachers don’t pay for it.

Actually, they do. The state’s human resources department brilliantly figured out that it could launder its wellness spending by hiring this outfit. By paying extra to Catapult (a multiple of what an effective wellness program would cost), the state is able to pick up the tab for wellness using the extra paperwork of a medical claim, as opposed to an outsized administrative expense in a separate line item. The latter would clearly need to be picked up by the taxpayers…and the state would have an incentive to control this highly visible figure.

By contrast, paying for “pry, poke and prod” as a medical claim will never be noticed, like Steve McQueen and David McCallum sprinkling the dirt from the tunnel around the stalag. On the other hand, the program will increase overall medical spending by 2% to 3% (the cost of the screening plus the added hyperdiagnosis expenses).

Here comes the evil genius part: At the next contract negotiation, the state can limit wage increases (or reduce benefits) by pointing out how high the health spending is.

So the teachers get pried, poked and prodded, hyperdiagnosed with hidden illnesses most of them don’t have – all against their will…and then they have to pay for the privilege in reduced wages.

Wow…the teachers are getting screwed. But, hey, at least they can’t sue the state, right, so taxpayers won’t have to pick up that bill, as well?

Starting in January, this program will be in blatant violation of two laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act. Those laws disallow forced wellness checkups but allow so-called “voluntary” ones.

Until recently, “voluntary” meant “do wellness or pay a big fine” like this one. But thanks to a lawsuit by AARP, the rules are changing in January so that “voluntary” must mean voluntary, like a dictionary would define the word.  (This summary has the links to all you need to know about the case.) To get these fines back, teachers will be able to sue the state, possibly even as a class action, and possibly being awarded punitive damages. Exposure to lawsuits could cost the state millions more in addition to its current expenditure on Catapult Health.

And that doesn’t even cover the costs of a possible teacher walkout, like the one in West Virginia that was spurred in part by – you guessed it – the wellness program.

But, don’t worry. Insurance will pay for it.

Ethics of Workplace Wellness Industry

Wellness is back in the news these days. The National Bureau of Economic Research’s controlled trial invalidating a Harvard study that has been used to claim major benefits from wellness programs and the surprise decision in the AARP v. EEOC case disallowing large financial inducements for “voluntary” programs both received national attention. Further, WillisTowersWatson’s quiet revelation that most employees really dislike wellness programs marks the first time anyone in the industry has ever acknowledged that, absent bribes and fines, few employees would submit to their HR people playing doctor.

By way of background, all these recent “findings” – the lack of savings from wellness programs, need for inducements, and the employee resentment – were quite clear to me in my roles at British Petroleum, Burger King and Walmart over three decades.

Along with Al Lewis, I brought this experience (and many others, such as the much more positive and increasingly popular domestic medical travel program) to public view in our book “Cracking Health Costs,” which continues to sell – and, more importantly, continues to resonate — five years after publication.

Largely because of the news hooks above, there have lately been a flurry of references to a comprehensive, scholarly article by that very same Al Lewis. Al, of course, is well-known for poking the wellness beast with humor, screenshots and eloquence on www.theysaidwhat.com. This article is different. Not as much fun perhaps, but “The Outcomes, Economics and Ethics of the Workplace Wellness Industry” captures all my doubts and criticisms, and much more besides.

See also: The Value of Workplace Wellness 

Al often says that the wellness industry’s worst nightmare is being quoted verbatim. In this article, he has collected a mountain of self-incriminating verbatim quotes and claims, sourced with roughly 400 linked footnotes, all leading to the inexorable conclusion that, to be blunt, the wellness empire has no clothes. Al presents convincing evidence that what he calls “pry, poke and prod” programs really can actually harm employees. Further, the way wellness vendors typically calculate costs and benefits results in false ROI numbers.

This exposé, though generally dry and straight, is not without flashes of Al’s understated humor, albeit delivered in the context of the leading law-medicine journal. In one passage, Ron Goetzel is forced to spin the gaffe that his wellness advocacy group, HERO, accidentally published a chapter in their Outcomes Guide showing that wellness loses money. Ron is sourced as saying:

HERO’s board claims that, in creating the guide, they “fabricated” these numbers for the purpose of providing an example. Publicly, Goetzel, a member of HERO’s board, stated that “[t]hose numbers are wildly off . . . every number in that chapter has nothing to do with reality.”

Al’s next paragraph:

The chapter’s author, however, disputes the HERO board’s and Goetzel’s claim that the numbers were fabricated. He argues that, quite the contrary, his data is real and several board members, including Goetzel, reviewed it prior to publication. Reconciling the example’s data with the HCUP database, which shows almost total consistency between the HERO sample and the population, provides further evidence for the author’s claim that the data is not “wildly off” but rather real, and a representative sample of the privately insured American workforce.

Al challenges the credibility of HERO’s board simply by quoting both a board member and the chapter author. After all, when your go-to defense is pretending to have fabricated your own numbers, you lose. And when Al Lewis is on the other end, you lose big.

This article, though not a quick read, is a necessary one for all policymakers, pundits and especially employers as they decide how to react both to the new findings by NBER and Willis – which turn out not to be new at all –and how to prepare for 2019.

See also: ‘Surviving Workplace Wellness’: an Excerpt  

Perhaps the best preparation is to do something completely different – as my book says, perhaps try doing wellness for employees instead of to them. “Pry, poke and prod” programs, especially the coercive ones, may finally meet the demise that I’ve been predicting for about 15 years now.

Published in the Case Western Reserve Health Matrix: Journal Law Medicine

What Trump Means for Workplace Wellness

Assume, reasonably, that voters chose Donald Trump to be the next president because they feel big business and government are in bed together. If indeed they are, workplace wellness is their sex toy.

There is nothing, certainly in healthcare and possibly anywhere, that more embodies the complete disdain for the average worker than the joined-at-the-hip partnership between big business and government known as workplace wellness.

That claim might seem extreme, but put yourself in the shoes of the average worker. You used to have a good health benefit. But then, following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, your benefits were reduced, and you were put in a high-deductible plan. True, your benefits might have been reduced anyway due to the increasing cost of healthcare, but coincidence to the average person smells like causality.

See also: The Value of Workplace Wellness  

A benefits reduction sounds like a wage cut. However, you are told you can earn some or all of it back. All you have to do is allow your employer (and, yes, it isn’t really your employer, but it smells like your employer) to pry into your personal life with a questionnaire; poke you with needles to do blood tests that over a 15-year period have proved useless at reducing the country’s heart attack and diabetes event rates; and prod you, in violation of all guidelines, to go to the doctor when you aren’t sick.

You (remember, “you” are still the worker) are then left with this Hobson’s choice: You must throw yourself at the mercy of an unregulated wellness vendor that – if last month’s C. Everett Koop award to Wellsteps for being the “best wellness program in the country” is any indication – is more likely to harm you than benefit you, while invading your privacy and sucking up your time.

As an employee, what recourse do you have? Basically none. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has no provisions against “voluntary” workplace wellness programs, and the word “voluntary” has now been defined to include even programs with non-compliance penalties that might exceed $2,000. The net result: You can be forced to pay a large fine for refusing to participate in a voluntary program, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

You can’t sue for malpractice because wellness vendors aren’t clinical professionals, and you can’t complain to the licensing authority because wellness vendors aren’t licensed. You can’t claim they violate the industry code of conduct because – unlike everything else, including war — wellness has no code of conduct: The wellness trade association has stonewalled on the code of conduct, which embraces only the simple notion that wellness should respect the dignity of workers and not harm them.

Should you opt to maintain your dignity and not violate clinical guidelines, by declining to be part of a wellness program, you may lose four figures in compensation just by wanting to be left alone to do your job.

Don’t take my word that this is how employees feel. Simply read the comments by employees to any article on wellness.

Meanwhile, what is the government doing? Simple. The government is carrying the Business Roundtable’s (BRT) water. The Senate is in the BRT’s pocket, holding “hearings” that are basically just ads for the BRT. And the president put the EEOC on a short leash after the BRT threatened him.

As members of the BRT, and their like-minded compadres at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, corporations are gleeful. They can cut benefits and “offer” employees the opportunity to earn them back, or just fine employees directly. One vendor, Bravo Wellness, even dogwhistled to employers that they could get immediate “savings” by fining employees.

What happens now, and what should you do?

Wellness is likely to become a touchstone for all that is wrong with the Affordable Care Act, because, almost uniquely in the ACA, the wellness provision has basically no upside. (Disagree? Show I’m wrong, and claim the $1 million reward I’ve offered to anyone who can show wellness has broken even this century.) The American Association of Retired People (AARP) is already shining a light on wellness via a lawsuit, and the effort may make it much more difficult for the wellness industry, the BRT and the Chamber to hide behind the EEOC.

As representatives of the employers who may very well be abusing employees (and not knowing it, any more than the Boise School District realized it was being snookered by Wellsteps until the problem was exposed by a leading healthcare journalist — even though the invalidity and ineffectiveness of the district’s wellness program was perfectly obvious to Wellsteps’ colleagues on the award committee), you should get ahead of this curve. Drop punitive wellness programs, or programs with low participation (which reflects low satisfaction). Or swap out programs that “do wellness to employees” for programs that “do wellness for employees.” The difference is fairly self-evident. Are employees lining up, or do they need to be coaxed? Are there big bribes or fines involved? Is the program something you yourself would do without an incentive?

See also: ‘Surviving Workplace Wellness’: an Excerpt  

You shouldn’t need to wait for the law to change to make changes yourself now. “Pry, poke and prod” programs were a bad idea to begin with, and the passage of time and rise of populism hasn’t made them any better.

Disclosure

The editorial viewpoint in this article, though reflecting my opinion, is colored by my leadership of Quizzify. Quizzify does not “pry, poke and prod” employees, but rather just enhances their knowledge base in an entertaining way. Not just theirs – even yours. Play the sample game on the site and see for yourself. We hope to benefit from the likely retreat from government support for intrusive and ineffective wellness programs in the new administration. On the other hand, you are free to publish opposing comments or viewpoints. Join the conversation, even if it means hollering at me by quoting people who know they are wrong claiming savings they know are fabricated.