HealthZette

Corporate Wellness Needs a Check-Up

Big profits based on questionable numbers deceive employers and employees

When Richard Branson’s wellness company, Virgin Pulse, merged last week with ShapeUp and Global Corporate Challenge, the result was the world’s largest corporate wellness program software provider.

“Corporate wellness,” as it is now known, has grown into a $7 billion-plus industry, and Virgin Pulse, already boasting 5 million participants in 184 countries, aims to grab an even bigger piece of this pie.

But are any of these wellness programs that we’re being targeted with in the office actually working?

Industry watchdogs are increasingly saying “no,” adding that all of the hype we’re hearing is purely a numbers game. And those numbers are quite often skewed in favor of the burgeoning wellness vendor corporations.

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Since first emerging as far back as the 1960s, corporate wellness as a concept has expanded greatly from providing a few on-site gym facilities. The recent Affordable Care Act, in fact, gave companies the ability to fine employees who were defined as “at risk” for various health condition — up to 30 percent of their insurance premium fees (50 percent for smokers).

This provision was meant to encourage more companies to jump on this bandwagon. It also allowed companies to fine employees for various infractions, such as refusing health assessments and screenings, or not taking action on “health risks” as defined by their wellness program.

The problem is, few companies measure a positive return on investment from wellness programs, citing various reasons for that omission.

“Measuring what works in wellness eludes most employers,” said Phil Daniels, executive vice president of Springbuk, an Indianapolis firm devoted to tracking and measuring wellness initiatives for companies. “Our research of 4,000 employers shows that 77 percent are not measuring or cannot measure a true ROI for wellness efforts.”

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Corporate wellness is unregulated — and the information, techniques and results are highly suspect, according to Al Lewis, of Boston, president of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium International, Inc., a consultant to health plans and self-insured employers.

Lewis, a former champion of these programs, now believes employers and employees are being taken for a very expensive and potentially dangerous ride. His book on outcomes measurement, “Why Nobody Believes the Numbers,” exposes inaccuracies in the health management field.

ShapeUp, one of the companies in the deal with Virgin Pulse, was named to Lewis’ “Ten Most Dangerous Wellness Vendors” list. That was due to its crash diet weight loss approach in which employees enter “challenges” to compete with other employees for weight loss, a practice that seems counterproductive to health and morale in the workplace.

The National Weight Control Registry’s research has found that 97-99 percent of those who lose weight regain it within two years. Weight cycling — or yo-yo dieting — takes a greater toll on health than never dieting at all, according to studies by the International Journal of Obesity.

“No education is necessary for wellness consultants. Some vendors, like Star Wellness, offer franchises to individual owners for around $65,000, with less than 8 days of classroom training. If it didn’t involve potential harmful health requirements, it would be laughable,” said Lewis.

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A major part of the money flow is through health risk assessments, unnecessary screenings and even drugs. Since Obamacare’s start in 2014, companies can actually charge their employees up to 30 percent more (meaning, “fine” them) for their health care insurance, as well as higher deductibles, for missing certain health care markers, like high cholesterol, blood pressure or Body Mass Index (BMI).

Even the use of BMI is suspect, Lewis told LifeZette: It is not necessary or useful. Among the programs he cites is the Nebraska State Employee Wellness Program, which waived industry standard age restrictions to get more people to use screenings. Waiving age restrictions, said Lewis, means younger people are getting tests that haven’t proven useful for them, but it lines the pockets of the vendor providing the screening.

“A doctor doing all this overscreening and billing for it would have been shut down,” Lewis explained. He said many vendors are waging a “hyperdiagnostic jihad and trying to justify it with false ROI numbers. There’s no purpose other than enriching their bank accounts.”

Employers spend an average of $693 per employee on wellness programs, according to research by the National Business Group on Health.

A survey by Fidelity Investments and National Business Group on Health (NBGH) indicated that 79 percent of employers offer some kind of wellness program; but another survey by Global Wellness Institute and everydayhealthinc found only 25 percent of people believe their employers offer the program because it cares about health. Seventy-five percent of workers seem to be cynical about wellness programs, or feel they are invading their privacy.

Pat Barone, CPCC, BCC, MCC is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.