Workplace wellness programs may not
save companies money in the short term, says an article
by the Associated Press based on a
2-year study at a major St Louis hospital system.
The new study provides an in-depth look at the experience of BJC HealthCare, a
hospital system that in 2005 started a comprehensive program linked to
insurance discounts. BJC employs 28,000 people and provides health insurance
for about 40,000, including family members. The overwhelming majority
participated in the wellness program.
The program focused on 6 lifestyle-influenced conditions: high blood
pressure, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung problems, serious respiratory
infections, and stroke. Employees had to join the program in order to get the
hospital's most generous level of health insurance, called the Gold Plan. For
family coverage, for example, the hospital paid nearly $1,650 more of costs in
the Gold Plan.
Employees in the wellness program had to complete a health risk assessment
that included height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and
other measurements. They also signed a pledge to maintain a healthy diet and
exercise regularly. Smokers had to get help to quit. Spouses also were required
to sign the health pledge and, if they smoked, get help.
The study tallied up BJC's medical costs before the wellness program and for
2 years after. It also compared those costs with expenses of 2 other big local
employers that did not have wellness programs.
Hospitalizations for employees and family members dropped dramatically, by
41% overall for the 6 major conditions. But increased outpatient costs erased
those savings. When those costs were added to the cost of the wellness
initiative itself, "it is unlikely that the program saved money," the
Steven Noeldner, an expert with the Mercer benefits consulting firm says
well-designed programs generally show a positive return of about 2% by the
third year, the article says.
BJC President Steven Lipstein said he doesn't dispute the conclusion, but he
remains committed to the wellness program and would invite the researchers to
take another look now.
He added that encouraging employees to make healthy lifestyle decisions and
rewarding those who do reflects corporate values, not just the bottom line.
Gautam Gowrisankaran, lead author of the study, notes that there could be other
benefits not directly measured in the study, such as reduced employee absenteeism
and higher productivity.