As health care costs continue to rise, employers are on the lookout for ways to reduce spending, and wellness programs are becoming an increasingly popular solution. While research has shown that wellness programs can reduce costs, many employers are failing to measure their return on investment to get an accurate picture of how these programs impact the bottom line, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president at the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit dedicated to representing large employers’ perspectives on national health policy issues in Washington, D.C.
“It’s important for everyone to look at what they’re spending on wellness per employee and look at that as a percentage of what they’re spending on health care,” Heinen says. “Most employers keep their wellness program investments small – only 2 percent of less of claim costs. There’s a body of evidence in different employer settings and over a number of years that suggests there is a return on investment of $2-3 per every dollar invested. When looking at these figures, a lot of companies might find that they’re underinvesting in wellness and prevention.”
Despite the importance of measuring ROI on wellness programs, it can be a struggle for employers because of the various components, Heinen says. Employees are coming and going, coverage policies could change, new insurance carriers take over – there are so many revolving factors in an employer’s reality that getting a real read of wellness programs can be difficult.
“We have a messy real world,” Heinen says. “The bottom line is you can try to collect and study a lot of data to determine the return on investment, but for all kinds of reasons out of your control, you don’t end up with valid information.”
Although measuring ROI is challenging, that’s not a reason for employers to give up, Heinen says. Instead, Heinen recommends that an employer divides its employee population into two groups: participants and nonparticipants. Between those two groups, an employer can look at the difference in claims over time. However, there are some problems with that approach.
“It’s easier to participate in wellness if you’re healthy, so maybe that person would have cost less anyway,” Heinen says. “Just because you participated in wellness doesn’t mean it was because of the wellness program that those people cost less, but at least you know there’s an association between people in the wellness program who tend to be lower cost, and it can give you that confidence that the more people participating in wellness, the better for your trend.”
An employer can also measure ROI by matching a participating employee to a nonparticipating employee who both represent similar demographics, Heinen says. For instance, an employer can take a nonsmoking 35-year-old woman following the wellness program and compare her claims to another nonsmoking 35-year-old woman who is not participating. These similar demographics do a better job of painting the true claims picture.
“It wouldn’t be a good comparison if all the employees participating were 25 and all the employees not participating were 45,” Heinen says “You want to match based on key demographics that drive costs and then you have a better chance of seeing the differences in the cost profiles is the wellness program and not their age or their smoking status or something else.”
Employers should keep in mind that calculating the success or failures of a wellness program takes time, Heinen adds. Considering the revolving workplace and the time and effort it takes for implementation, employers should give their wellness programs two to three years before they relying on the data.
“It takes a while to get enough people to participate, and then it also takes time to get information on their experiences and make changes,” Heinen says. “You really need at least two years.”