Tag Archives: seth serxner

10 Most Dangerous Wellness Programs

If corporate wellness didn’t already exist, no one would invent it. In that sense, it’s a little like communism, baseball, pennies or Outlook.

After all, why would any company want to purchase programs that damage moralereduce productivitydrive costs up…and don’t work 90% to 95% of the time? And those are the results reported by wellness proponents.

Those are the employers’ problems, but the employers’ problems become the employees’ problems when employees are “voluntarily” forced to submit to programs that are likely to harm them. (As the New York Times recently pointed out, there is nothing voluntary about most of these programs.)

Recently, the head of United Healthcare’s (UHC) wellness operations (Optum), Seth Serxner, admitted that Optum’s programs consciously ignore U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) screening guidelines. Rather than apologize, Serxner blamed employers for insisting on overscreening and overdiagnosing their own employees…and (by implication) overpaying for the privilege of doing so. “Our clients make us do it,” were his exact words.

We asked our own clients who use Optum about why they turned down Optum’s generous offer to do more appropriate screenings at a lower price. None of them remember receiving such an offer.

A UHC executive wrote and said we were making the company look bad. I said I would happily revise or even retract statements about the company if the executive could introduce me to just one single Optum customer — one out of their thousands — who recalls insisting on overscreening and overpaying. Never heard back….

United Healthcare isn’t alone in harming employees. It is just the first company to admit doing so. It is also far from the worst offender, as the harms of its overscreening for glucose and cholesterol don’t hold a candle to the ideas listed below, in increasing order of harms:

#10 Provant

We would say: “Someone should inform Provant that you are not supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day,” except that we already did, and they didn’t believe us. Obsessive hydration remains one of their core recommendations despite the overwhelming evidence that you should drink when you are thirsty.

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By contrast, the New York Times, which has an Internet connection, writes the opposite:

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#9 Cerner

The employee who recorded this blood pressure is essentially dead. Cerner’s diagnosis? Blood pressure “higher than what is ideal.” Cerner’s recommendation? “Talk to your healthcare provider.” A real doctor’s recommendation? “Call an ambulance. The guy barely has a pulse.”

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This is not a random mistake. This is the front cover of the company’s brochure.

#8 Nebraska/Health Fitness Corp.

USPSTF screening age recommendations aren’t minimums. They are optimums, the ages at which screening benefits might start to exceed harms, even if they still fall far short of costs. Otherwise, you are taking way too much risk. This is especially true for colonoscopies, one of this program’s favorite screens — complications from the test itself can be very serious.

Your preventive coverage is not supposed to be “greater than healthcare reform guidelines.” That’s like rounding up twice the number of usual suspects. And you aren’t supposed to waive “age restrictions.” That’s like a state waiving minimum “age restrictions” to get a driver’s license.

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Yet this program won a C. Everett Koop Award for excellence in wellness, not to mention the unwavering support and admiration of leading wellness apologist Ron Goetzel.

#7-#6 (tie) ShapeUp and Wellness Corporate Solutions

Both these outfits pitch exactly the opposite of what you are supposed to do in weight control: unhealthy crash dieting. Attaching money to this idea and setting a start date make the plan even worse: along with crash-dieting during these eight weeks, you’re encouraging employees to binge before the initial weigh-in.

Here is ShapeUp:

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Here is Wellness Corporate Solutions:

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Both also made up outcomes. In ShapeUp’s case, the company had to rescind its “findings” after the customer, Highmark, skewered the company in the press. And neither seems to care that corporate weight control programs are proven not to work.

#5 Aetna

In addition to its wellness program that collects employee DNA (partnered, ironically, with a company called Newtopia) and then makes up claims about savings, Aetna owns the distinction of launching the only wellness program whose core drugs are specifically editorialized against in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This would literally be the most harmful wellness program ever, except that the only employees being harmed are (1) obese employees who (2) answer the phone when their employer’s health plan calls them to pitch these two drugs; (3) who have a doctor who would willingly prescribe drugs that almost no other doctors will prescribe, because of their side effect profile; and (4) who don’t Google the drugs. Presumably, this combination is a very low percentage of all employees.

The good news is that the drugs, Belviq and Qsymia, should be off the market in a couple of years because almost no one wants to take them, so the harms of this Aetna program should be self-limited.

#4 Star Wellness

Star Wellness offers a full range of USPSTF D-rated screens. “D” is the lowest USPSTF rating and means harms exceed benefits. Star gets extra credit for being the first wellness vendor to sell franchises. All you need is a background in sales or “municipal administration” plus $67,000 and five days of training, and you, too, can poke employees with needles and lie about your outcomes. Is this a great country, or what?

Also, the company’s vaccination clinic features Vitamin B12 shots. We don’t know which is more appalling–routinely giving employees Vitamin B12 shots or thinking Vitamin B12 is a vaccine.

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#3 Angioscreen

Angioscreen doesn’t have the most USPSTF D-rated screens. In fact, it offers only one screen in total, for carotid artery stenosis. That screen gets a D grade from USPSTF, giving Angioscreen the unique distinction of being the only vendor 100% guaranteed to harm your workforce.

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Angioscreen’s other distinction is that the company admits right on its website that this screen is a bad idea. Angioscreen is probably the only non-tobacco company in America to admit you are better off not using its product.

#2 Total Wellness

In addition to the usual assortment of D-rated tests, the company offers screens that the USPSTF hasn’t even rated, because it never, ever occurred to the USPSTF that anyone would use these tests for mass screening of patients or employees. Criticizing the USPSTF for not rating these “screens” (CBCs and Chem-20s) would be like criticizing Sanofi-Aventis for not warning against taking Ambien after parking your car on a railroad crossing.

#1 HealthFair

Let’s leave aside the fact that the majority of its other screens are harmful and focus on its screening for H.pylori, the strain of bacteria associated with ulcers.

Visit our full treatment here. In a nutshell, the majority of us harbor H.pylori–without symptoms. It may even be beneficial. The screening test is expensive and notoriously unreliable, and the only way to get rid of H.pylori is with some very powerful antibiotics, a treatment rarely even used on patients with symptoms, because of its inconvenience, ineffectiveness and potential long-term side-effects.

A Modest Proposal

So how should we as a country protect employees from these harms? Our policy recommendation is always the same and very non-intrusive. We aren’t saying wellness vendors shouldn’t be allowed to harm employees. That proposal would be too radical to ever pass Congress. If it did, the Business Roundtable would pressure the White House again, to preserve the hard-earned right to “medicalize” the workplace and show employees who’s boss.

Instead, we recommend merely a disclosure requirement. The harms of screens or (in United Healthcare’s case) screening intervals that don’t earn at least a “B” from USPSTF should be disclosed to employees, and employees should get a chance to “opt out” into something that isn’t harmful (like Quizzify, perhaps?) without suffering financial consequences.

Call us cockeyed optimists, but we don’t think employers should be able to force employees to choose between harming themselves and paying fines.

Inoculating Your Wellness Program Against the EEOC

Two months ago, a posting appeared in this column titled: Are Obamacare Wellness Programs Soon to be Outlawed? Truthfully, that headline was picked for its sky-is-falling value, treating one EEOC lawsuit against one wacky wellness program as a risk for wellness programs everywhere.

As luck would have it, the sky just fell yesterday — right on the head of Honeywell — and the EEOC is indicating more lawsuits are to come.

The scary part: Unlike the wacky wellness program described in the column two months ago, Honeywell was in compliance with the Affordable Care Act. Compliance with the ACA doesn’t seem to get you a free pass on the EEOC’s own “business necessity” requirement. Essentially, the Honeywell lawsuit means no company doing invasive biometric screenings and mandating doctor visits or measuring health outcomes is immune to prosecution, even if it is in compliance with ACA.

The even scarier part: The EEOC is correct that, as this column has noted for almost two years now, wellness programs mandating overscreening and annual checkups have no business necessity. In fact, these “employer playing doctor” programs can harm employees, because:

  • A workplace screen can find heart attacks… but at the cost of a million dollars apiece, when emotionally draining false positives and potentially hazardous overtreatment are taken into account;
  • The Journal of the American Medical Association recommends against mandatory checkups;
  • An embargoed, peer-reviewed article that will be published soon in a major journal concludes that the costs and unintended health hazards of weight control programs generally overwhelm the benefits.

Companies could still claim business necessity if, indeed, these programs save money despite the harm to employees. (OSHA might raise issues, but those are hypothetical whereas EEOC is an elephant in the room.) And a few of you might ask: “Didn’t Seth Serxner of Optum and Ron Goetzel of Truven just write a journal article and show a webinar saying: ‘The overwhelming majority of published studies show positive results’?”

Unfortunately, those “positive results” — as is well-known to the presenters, who, after all, have access to the Internet — fail any sniff test.

These two true believers continue to cite Professor Katherine Baicker even though she has stepped back three times from her old (2009) conclusion that wellness provided a significant return on investment (ROI), including a “no comment” to ITL’s own Paul Carroll. More recently, she has, with great justification, blamed overzealous readers for selectively interpreting her findings. Goetzel also continues to cite the state of Nebraska, which his committee gave an award to as a “best practice” despite the revelations that the state’s vendor lied about saving the lives of cancer victims and that the vendor also paid off his award committee with a sponsorship. Likewise, Goetzel’s misinterpretation of a RAND study has drawn a rebuke from the author of the study, in a coming letter to the editor. [Editor’s Note: ITL emailed a link to this article to the press offices at both Truven and Optum on Oct. 30 offering them a chance to respond to the author’s allegations. Both were told that they could either comment at length in this article or could write separate articles that would lay out their position and that ITL would publish. Neither company has yet responded.]

Clearly, the EEOC is on to something about a lack of business necessity, when even the alleged best-and-brightest wellness defenders are forced to rely on misstatements and half-truths. Not to mention selective omissions — the presentation’s extensive section on “critics” had no mention of me, despite a recent cover story citing me as the field’s leading critic, because both these two presenters know my math is irrefutable. These industry defenders also have spotty memories, as when they claim that it is valid to compare the performance of active, willing participants against a control group of unmotivated non-participants and dropouts — forgetting that they gave out a Koop Award to one of their sponsors who showed exactly the reverse.

Inoculating Your Programs

A problem with the EEOC does not have to happen to you or your clients (if you are a broker). Taking three steps — the first of which is free and the second of which costs only in the four figures — essentially guarantees that you will not end up on the hot seat with Honeywell.

First, sign and adhere to the Workplace Wellness Code of Conduct.  This will allow you and any clients to focus your own efforts on avoiding employee harm and creating a framework for business necessity. This document is provided gratis for ITL readers, from the author.

Second, employers who sign this and get at least one vendor/carrier to sign and implement its counterpart, the Workplace Wellness Vendor Code of Conduct, can have their own outcomes validated by the GE-Intel Validation Institute (itself the subject of a forthcoming ITL posting), to create an audit trail that, in fact, outcomes are being measured.

Third, I personally — along with colleagues — will do an in-depth  walkthrough to see if, indeed, your wellness program complies with U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines. If not, we will provide a list of next steps to get into compliance.

The inoculation? A six-figure guarantee that you (or your client, if you’re a broker) will not be the subject of a successful EEOC lawsuit. Besides providing some protection on its own, this level of financial commitment may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your actions will be a pretty convincing piece of evidence that business necessity and employee health are the goals, as measured by an objective and qualified third party.

Yes, I know it’s not always about me; you can protect yourself in other ways. My ex was quite clear on the subject of whether it’s always about me.

However, in this case, my ex would seem to be wrong. It appears that every screening vendor, every alleged wellness expert and most of those in large benefits consulting firms have done just the opposite of what I’m suggesting: They have proposed massive wellness programs with hefty financial incentives or penalties that get companies into fine messes like Honeywell’s. But, in case I’m wrong, I welcome names, websites and contact information of other consultants taking the same approach that I am. Please note them in the comments boxes below.  All will be published.