Wishing for wellness

Amid the litany of measures to scale back rising benefits costs, employers are actually becoming more aggressive with their wellness program dollars. And if you think health management initiatives are all about breaking bad health habits, think again. There may come a point when no one will be able to receive medical coverage unless they’re taking part in the company wellness program.

The seismic shift of accountability to workers is progressing quickly as premiums rise and workplaces are plagued with chronic health problems and preventable conditions. More than 60 percent of companies with 10,000 or more employees said they had a wellness program in 2008, according to a MetLife survey. And almost 60 percent of employers agree incentive-based programs had a better than expected success rate at increasing employee participation, according to a new survey from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health.

[See also: 5 ways to improve your wellness program: Slideshow]

The survey found three out of four (73 percent) companies used incentives in 2011 to engage employees in health-improvement programs and the average incentive value was $460. The survey also found that, incentives aside, the average employer spent $169 per employee on health-improvement programs in 2011, compared to $154 in 2010 and up from $108 in 2009.

Albeit a small figure, trending evidence shows health management initiatives are slowly becoming a mainstay for participation requirements. Last year, 5 percent of companies required their workers to complete biometric testing (e.g. cholesterol screening) or be excluded from coverage. That number is expected to nearly double in 2012 to 9 percent. Likewise, 7 percent of companies required completion of a health-risk assessment last year. This year, 10 percent of companies will require it.

Arguably, the chronic misuse of health dollars is prompting a much-needed reevaluation of health management. But re-routing benefits priorities - and more importantly, investments - to focus on wellness programs may be more of a faith-based pursuit than a proven method. When researchers at the Center for Studying Health System Change interviewed benefits experts about wellness programs in July 2010, they found most experts agreed "there is no single industry standard for measuring return on investment (ROI) on wellness programs...ROI expectations have been scaled back, although one skeptical expert contended that some wellness vendors still 'screw around [with the numbers] until they get a 3:1.'"

So while employers can tout the effectiveness of wellness programs - whether in measured cost savings or productivity gains -  they may be counting their chickens before they've had a chance to hatch...or become clinically healthier.

About the Author
Jenny Ivy

Jenny Ivy

Jenny Ivy is managing editor for BenefitsPro.com. She also covers benefits manager topics and can be reached at jivy@benefitspro.com.

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