Tag Archives: Vik Khanna

Healthcare: When a Win-Win Is Lose-Lose

“Workplace Wellness Programs Are a Sham“ is a good article in Slate by L.V. Anderson. This is a must read for people who remain true believers that workplace wellness will improve worker health.

“The idea behind wellness programs sounds like a win-win,” Anderson writes. Alas, history is full of “win-win” ideas that were destructive, costly or ineffective.

She describes the infamous “doublespeak” of Safeway CEO Stephen Burd’s description of success with Safeway’s wellness program. Anderson writes, “As it turns out, almost none of Burd’s story was true.” (Regular readers of my blog will know I’ve written about the Safeway nonsense before.)

For decades, everyone knew that an annual physical was a great way to stay healthy, but various studies, including the famous New England Centenarian Study, have exposed that as a myth, too.

See also: A Proposed Code of Conduct on Wellness  

Antibacterial soap, anyone? Sounded like a great win-win, no? The FDA finally outlawed it. In my book, An Illustrated Guide to Personal Health, written in 2015 with UNLV Professor Robert Woods, Chapter 4 was titled, “Avoid Antibacterial Soaps and Gels.” Why? “Overuse of antibacterial soaps and gels can reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics you may need someday…. They are helping create antibiotic-resistant germs.”

Back to wellness failures. Companies in the U.S. have spent huge dollars trying to keep employees healthy through methods that are shams. It’s time to move on.

I immodestly include the following quote from Anderson’s article: “You might think of Al Lewis, Vik Khanna and Tom Emerick as the Three Musketeers in the fight against wellness programs.“* Al and I are co-authors of the Amazon best seller, Cracking Health Costs. It describes flaws in typical corporate wellness schemes, which while profitable to wellness vendors are useless at best and can actually be harmful to workers health at worst, not to mention the inconvenience and costs of going to doctors for all that screening. Concerns about wasted productivity, anyone?

How can wellness programs harm worker health? One way is by promoting gross over-testing and excessive screening by tools that have very high error rates and rates of false positives, e.g., PSA screens.

One good byproduct of dumping your wellness program is to avoid all the costly and burdensome reporting ACA requires. Yet another good byproduct is letting your employees do their work at work instead of spending non-productive time every year in wellness lectures, filling out health risk assessments, reading wellness-related emails and brochures, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

How can “wellnessophiles” in companies truly believe that their employees don’t already know that smoking, overeating, lack of exercise and excessive consumption of concentrated sugars are not good for them? Do wellness proponents truly believe that the employees’ doctors haven’t already addressed those issues…not to mention public service announcements, health classes in high school and so on? Do proponents think their employees who smoke have never noticed warning labels on cigarette packs?

I meet a lot of people from various walks of life. Occasionally, I ask them if their employer has a wellness program and, if so, what do they think about it. The typical first reaction is they roll their eyes. The most common comment is that the company’s wellness program is “just another [insert unflattering adjective here] HR program.” That’s usually followed by comments best described as lampooning the programs, as in “you’re not gonna believe this but…” type of comments.

Interestingly, I meet HR executives who admit their wellness program are ineffective and costly, yet they cling to them. They usually give one of two reasons. One is that they don’t want to admit that their program is a big waste of money. Another common rational is some version of “Too many of our employees are unhealthy; we gotta do something.” (I put that in roughly the same category as, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”) That line of thinking is bureaucracy at its worst. You would never spend your own money that way…or maybe they would?  Hmm.

I get asked, if not wellness then what? My reply is anything that might actually save money or get better care for your workers, e.g., centers of excellence and direct contracting with providers. There is some promising work on reference-based pricing and better pharmacy management. Also, I believe we may have a surge of international medical travel in the future, too, especially to places like Health City Cayman Island (HCCI), about an hour’s flight from Miami and one of the best-quality hospitals and clinics in this hemisphere. I have visited HCCI a number of times and met a number of their surgeons. They are excellent.

See also: EEOC Caves on Wellness Programs  

I tried various forms of wellness in my career of running large sell-insured plans. I tried to make them work, but in the end none of them were effective, and some actually drove up health costs in a way a steely-eyed CFO would quickly understand. For about half my career, I reported through the CFO chain, not HR. CFOs really get the numbers and ask the tough ROI questions.

HR executives, take note: You can increase your status and respect if you just get out of wellness. Again, it’s time to move on. While wellness at work was a noble notion and one that made sense to many on the surface, it’s time to “fess” up to your bosses. They will appreciate your message and appreciate the reduction of wasteful spending.

Tom Emerick’s latest book is An Illustrated Guide to Personal HealthFor further information on this topic, see the They Said What blog by Al Lewis and Vik Khanna.

The 3 Best Websites on Healthcare

These are three websites I read every day and from which I draw a huge amount of useful information:

  1. The Doctor Weighs In, hosted by Dr. Patricia Salber. TDWI is truly mind-expanding. She explores topics from the relationship between morality and religion to detecting post-surgery respiratory problems. Here is a link to The Doctor Weighs In.
  2. They Said What?, hosted by the inimitable Al Lewis and Vik Khanna. They go about exploding one healthcare myth after another and do so with appropriate satire, hilarious quotes and self-immolating vendor screenshots. I can’t go to this website without learning valuable information and having a good laugh. Who doesn’t like a good satire? Here is a link to They Said What? My advice: start with “This is your brain on wellness.”
  3. Not Running a Hospital, hosted by Paul Levy. Not Running a Hospital goes way beyond what the title implies…and way beyond healthcare in general. It, too, is mind-expanding. He covers topics from math education to healthcare myths and back again. Here is a link to Not Running a Hospital.

I urge you to add these websites to your bookmarks and visit them often.

3 Surprising Hazards Of Worksite Wellness

In an entirely entertaining Forbes online article, a truly effective healthcare leader, Leah Binder, lists the following three hazards of worksite wellness programs:

1. Dismaying and Alienating Employees. Who today doesn’t already know that smoking is unhealthy?

2. Bad Programs Don’t Save Money. Too many wellness vendors simply fabricate results.

3. Potential Harm to Employee Health. False positives on wellness-driven testing can lead to employee harm and huge, unwanted spending.

Binder writes “I don’t come to this conclusion lightly.”

Further, “…I believe we must call out poorly designed programs that prey on well-meaning employers and other purchasers.”

She points to a great book by on this topic by my friends and colleagues Vik Khanna and Al Lewis, Surviving Workplace Wellness…: With Your Dignity, Finances and (Major) Organs Intact.

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.

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.