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  • Workplace Wellness Programs Not Netting Savings

    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 authors concluded.

    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.

    Economist 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.


    • Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, MA has a greatly successful wellness program for their employees that has reduced costs and this year our insurance rates actually decreased. I am only an employee so I don't know the exact numbers but the hospital works hard to care for it's patients and the care is just as good for their employees :)

      Posted by Geanna Granger on 3/5/2013 7:12 PM

    • Measuring health variables and signing an contract do not ensure participation. Regular re-evaluations and documentation of participation are the only ways to make sure employees are really receiving the benefits of any program.

      Posted by Mark Howard -> =GQ^C on 3/7/2013 1:34 PM

    • As physical therapists, we need to advocate for a new approach to wellness screening that substitutes a physical fitness screen for blood screening that is costly and results in more prescriptions, rather than more physical activity.

      Posted by Rick Wickstrom on 3/8/2013 5:47 PM

    • Did the participants in the study spend more on out-patient services during the study period? Or was the cost of the wellness program such that the combined out-paient cost + wellness program cost = hosptialization cost? Shouldn't a wellness program be the responsibility of the individual? That is to say wellness should be a PERSONAL value? Not that it hurts for the corporate culture to support a wellness value as they, too, have a vested interest (sick-time costs $$).

      Posted by Becky Hoskins, P.T. on 3/11/2013 1:33 PM

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