09 March 2013

My Opinion on Employer Sponsored Wellness Programs

By now you've heard about them at work.  It's those so-called employee wellness programs that are put on by your employer so that you can stay healthy; after all, your employer wants to maintain a healthy workplace so to speak.

The purpose of those employee wellness programs is simple:  Your employer's Human Resources Department (HR for short) more than likely has on staff a wellness coordinator to oversee the wellness activities within your workplace.  The job of the wellness coordinator - as well as the purpose of these wellness programs - is to lure you, the employee, into a conference room conveniently located to where your desk or cubicle is located for a chock full of health and wellness information such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle, stuff on diabetes prevention, maintaining a healthy blood pressure, and much, much more.

In fact, some wellness events will bring in a health paraprofessional to conduct screenings for diseases such as blood pressure checks, blood glucose screenings for diabetes, and a lot more as well.  The purpose of these events is to apparently "empower" you with what you need to know to stay healthy - at your company's expense.

However, employee wellness is going much beyond the periodic wellness events conducted by your employer.  With the advent of Health Care Reform (a/k/a Obamacare) we are seeing more and more wellness programs tied into employer sponsored health insurance.  Sure, with Obamacare your insurer cannot charge you more for getting sick but there's a catch:  You can be charged more for having a risky lifestyle.

Here's a trend that is becoming more and more popular with employer sponsored health insurance:  The high deductible health plan, where you pay a significantly less premium but you have to pay more on deductibles.  However, in order to help you meet the high deductibles your employer will more than likely fund a health savings account to help you with these deductibles.

Now how much does your employer fund your health savings account?  Good question!  The following is from what I recently read on one high deductible health plan:

1.  Mere enrollment in the high deductible health plan:  $250.

2.  Complete a healthy lifestyle attestation:  $150.

3.  Complete an online health assessment:  $200.

4.  Submit yourself (and your spouse, if covered) to a biometric screening:  $250.

1 and 2 are no brainers.  However, 3 and 4 I think begin to cross the line into patient privacy, especially if someone has health issues.  With the biometric screening, in theory it can be used by your employer's health insurance company against you in that you can be charged high rates or risk getting dropped.  (I am not sure if the risk of being dropped applies to employer sponsored health care plans once Obamacare goes into full effect in 2014, but I know for sure you can't get dropped from an individual health care plan).

This is where employee wellness programs start to fit in more.  Beyond the traditional seminars and information on how to achieve a healthy lifestyle, we are seeing employee wellness programs that dabble more and more into one's private life as far as his or her health is concerned.  To me, that's none of an employer's business.

Which leads us to this question:  Do employer sponsored wellness programs give helpful information and advice on maintaining a healthy lifestyle or do these wellness programs go way too far and overreaching?

Well, here's my opinion on employer sponsored wellness programs:

These wellness programs should be renamed as employer sponsored sickness programs.  After all, these programs are designed to diagnose what your ailment is and to get you into a program in order to ameliorate your ailment or condition - usually an eight to ten week program held at a hospital or health care center somewhere.

More than likely you can't attend that eight to ten week program.  It's because of family commitments, not to mention the long commute you got to and from work daily.

Besides, there is no immediate cost savings realized from these employer sponsored wellness programs, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs, as mentioned in this ABC Action News (WFTS-TV, the ABC affiliate here in Tampa) article.  The study followed a wellness program at a St. Louis hospital for two years.

According to the study, hospitalizations have decreased for six major conditions.  Unfortunately, the downside is that the savings, if any, were erased by increased outpatient costs.

Further, these employer sponsored wellness programs do dabble into one's medical history above and beyond the information and seminars presented.  According to the Health Affairs study, anyone wanting to sign up for the employer's most generous of their health insurance program are asked to submit to a privacy invading wellness program which included taking a person's height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and much more.

Yeah right.  These wellness screenings can be used against you by either your employer or your employer's health insurance company.  Does the Medical Information Bureau ring a bell?  And if you are filling a prescription and your employer's health insurance is covering you, chances are this information is being reported to a third party such as Ingenix.

And we can't forget one more privacy invading service:  The FICO Medication Adherance Score, courtesy of the same people that give you your credit score.  It is a record of how you adhere to your doctor's prescriptions.  In theory, this so-called medication adherance score can be used against you or even your loved one, especially if a petition for guardianship is ever filed:  During the inqusition of you or your loved one's personal affairs by the court appointed examining committee, your FICO Medication Adherance Score can be obtained by court order.  I know, the brief discussion on guardianship is not part of this topic on employer sponsored wellness programs but I threw it in for you just to illustrate the privacy dangers you face when you submit yourself to a privacy invading wellness screening.  I can go on further on how you or your loved one's medical records can have a significant impact in a guardianship case, but I'll save that for another topic.

In short, my opinion on employer sponsored wellness programs is this:  These programs are an invasion of your medical privacy, and your doctor's office - in a private setting - is the place to discuss your medical concerns.  Besides, there is little to no cost savings or return on investment involved.

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