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Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Six impossible things before breakfast? The wellness industry would just be getting warmed up by believing six impossible things before breakfast. They believe enough impossible things all day long to support an entire restaurant chain:
Consider the article in the current issue of BenefitsPro — forwarded to me by many members of the Welligentsia — entitled: “Can the Wellness Industry Live Up to Its Promises?” BenefitsPro rounded up some of the leaders of the wellness industry alt-stupid segment. Specifically, they interviewed US Corporate Wellness, Fitbit, Staywell, and HERO. Each is a perennial candidate for the Deplorables Awards — except US Corporate Wellness, which already secured its place in the Deplorables Hall of Fame (and Why Nobody Believes the Numbers) several years ago with these three paeans to the gods of impossibility.
In case you can’t read the key statistic — the first bullet point — it says: “Wellness program participants are 230% less likely to utilize EIB (extended illness benefit) than non-participants.” Here is some news for the Einsteins at US Corporate Wellness: You can’t be 230% less likely to do anything than anybody. For instance, even you, despite your best efforts in these three examples, can’t be 230% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us. Here’s a rule of math for you: a number can only be reduced by 100%. Rules of math tend to be strictly enforced, even in wellness. So the good news is, even in the worst-case scenario, you’re only 100% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us.
And yet, if it were possible to be 230% dumber than the rest of us, you might be. For instance, US Corporate Wellness also brought us this estimate of the massive annual savings that can be obtained just by, Seinfeld-style, doing nothing:
So assume I spent about $3500/year in healthcare 12 years ago, which is probably accurate. My modifiable risk factors were zero then and they are still zero — no increase. So my healthcare spending should have fallen by $350/year for 12 years, or $4200 since then. But that would be impossible, since I could only reduce my spending by $3500. Do you see how that works now?
To his credit, US Corporate Wellness’s CEO, Brad Cooper, is quoted in this article as saying: “Unfortunately some in the industry have exaggerated the savings numbers.” You think?
I’m pretty sure this next one is impossible too. I say “pretty sure” because I’ve never been able to quite decipher it, English being right up there with math as two subjects which apparently frustrated many a wellness vendor’s fifth grade teacher:
400% of what? Is US Corporate Wellness saying that, as compared to employees with a chronic disease like hypertension, employees who take their blood pressure pills are 400% more productive? Meaning that if they controlled their blood pressure, waiters could serve 400% more tables, doctors could see 400% more patients, pilots could fly planes 400% faster? Teachers could teach 400% more kids? Customer service recordings could tell us our calls are 400% more important to them?
Or maybe wellness vendors could make 400% more impossible claims. That would explain this BenefitsPro article.
We have been completely unable to get Fitbit to speak, but BenefitsPro couldn’t get them to shut up. Here is Fitbit’s Amy McDonough: “Measurement of a wellness program is an important part of the planning process.” Indeed it is! It’s vitally important to plan on how to fabricate impossible outcomes to measure, when in reality your product may even lead to weight gain. Here is one thing we know is impossible: you can’t achieve a 58% reduction in healthcare expenses through behavior change — especially if (as in the 133 patients they tracked in one of their studies) behavior didn’t actually change.
You can read about that gem, and others, in our recent Fitbit series here:
- Springbuk wants employees to go to the bathroom
- Fitbit throws a bit of a fit, Part 1
- Fitbit throws a bit of a fit, Part 2
Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Staywell
I’ll consider these two outfits together because people seem to bounce back and forth between them. Jessica Grossmeier is one such person. Jessica became the Neil Armstrong of impossible wellness outcomes way back in 2013. Not just any old impossible wellness outcomes — those have been around for decades. She and Staywell pioneered the concept of claiming outcomes they already knew were impossible. While at Staywell, she and her co-conspirators told British Petroleum they had saved about $17,000 per risk factor reduced. So, yes, according to Staywell, anyone who temporarily lost a little weight saved BP $17,000 — enough to clean up about 1000 gallons of oil spilled from Deepwater Horizon.
See British Petroleum’s Wellness Program Is Spewing Invalidity for the details.
Leave aside both the obvious impossibility of this claim, and also the mathematical impossibility of this claim given that employers only actually spend about $6000/person on healthcare. Jessica’s breakthrough was to also ignore the fact that this $17,000/risk factor savings figure exceeds by 100 times what her very own article claims in savings. Not by 100 percent. By 100 times.
Fast-forward to her new role at HERO. In this article she says:
The conversation has thus shifted from a focus on ROI alone to a broader value proposition that includes both the tangible and intangible benefits of improved worker health and well-being.
Her memory may have failed her here too because HERO — in addition to admitting that wellness loses money (which explains its “shift” from the “focus on ROI alone”) — also listed the “broader value proposition” elements of their pry-poke-and-prod wellness programs. The problem is the elements of the broader value proposition of screening the stuffing out of employees aren’t “benefits.” They’re costs, and lots of them:
When she says: “The conversation has shifted from a focus on ROI alone,” she means: “We all got caught making up ROIs so we need to make up a new metric.” RAND’s Soeren Mattke predicted this new spin three years ago, observing that every time the wellness industry makes claims and they get debunked, they simply make a new set of claims, and then they get debunked, and then the whole process repeats with new claims, whack-a-mole fashion, ad infinitum. Here is his specific quote:
“The industry went in with promises of 3 to 1 and 6 to 1 based on health care savings alone – then research came out that said that’s not true. Then they said: “OK, we are cost neutral.” Now, research says maybe not even cost neutral. So now they say: “But is really about productivity, which we can’t really measure but it’s an enormous return.”
While other vendors, such as Wellsteps, harm plenty of employees, Interactive Health holds the distinction of being the only wellness vendor to actually harm me. I went to a screening of theirs. In order to increase my productivity, they stretched out my calves. Indeed, I could feel my productivity soaring — until one of them went into spasm. I doubt anyone has missed this story but in case anyone has…
They also hold the distinction of being the first vendor (actually their consultant) to try to bribe me to stop pointing out how impossible their outcomes were. They were upset because I profiled them n the Wall Street Journal . The article is behind a paywall, so you probably can’t see it. Here’s the spoiler: they allegedly saved a whopping $53,000 for every risk factor reduced. In your face, Staywell!
Here is the BenefitsPro article’s quote from Interactive Health’s Jared Smith:
“There are many wellness vendors out there that claim to show ROI,” he says. “However, many of their models and methodologies are complex, based upon assumptions that do not provide sufficient quantitative evidence to substantiate their claims.”
Finally, here is a news flash for Interactive Health: sitting is not the new smoking. If anything is the “new smoking,” it’s opioid addiction, which has reached epidemic proportions in the workforce while being totally, utterly, completely, negligently, mind-blowingly, Sergeant Shultz-ily, ignored by Interactive Health and the rest of the wellness industry.
There is nothing funny about opioid addiction and the wellness industry’s failure to address it, a topic for a future blog post. The only impossibility is that it is impossible to believe that an entire industry charged with what Jessica Grossmeier calls “worker health and well-being” could have allowed this to happen. Alas, happen it did.
And, as you can see from the time-stamp on this post, except at establishments favored by the Wellness Ignorati, breakfast hasn’t even been served yet.
*Among the subset of males not affiliated with They Said What.
Alert readers may recall that my New Year’s resolution was to balance my negative postings about the wellness industry with positive ones. Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, I thought the finding the latter would be hard, but just as Romy Antoine also did earlier this month, The subject of this posting — to be named in Part Two — makes that easy. Part One sets the stage for the review of his study.
By way of background, in preparation for bringing a possible lawsuit, I re-read the famous Chapter 2 of the equally famous HERO report. That was the chapter which inspired Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner and Paul Terry (who was recently anointed as the American Journal of Health Promotion’s new Fabricator-in-Chief) to circulate their defamatory letter about me to the media, in a singularly self-immolating attempt to discourage them from publishing my material. They insisted that Chapter 2 was pure fabricated nonsense, rather than a carefully analyzed report of real data. Here is an excerpt from their actual letter, copies of which are available from me but which is summarized here:
A fabricated…absurd, mischievous and potentially harmful misrepresentation of our data.
Ron said it best in our Great Debate, minute 1:17 in the MP3 downloadable here:
Those numbers are wildly off…every number in that chapter has nothing to do with reality.
However, the sun rises in the east, taxes are due April 15th, and Ron Goetzel is lying. Quite the contrary, Chapter 2 turns out to be a carefully analyzed report of real data — almost certainly the best case study ever published.
How did I learn that Ron was fabricating a story that his guidebook had fabricated a story?
- This chapter says it’s a real report, on p. 22.
- Since this chapter’s analysis was so far above the pay grade of those three aforementioned HERO characters, I checked the acknowledgements in the HERO book. Sure enough, none of the HERO cabal wrote it. Someone else (to be named in the next posting) was the lead author, and I called to congratulate him on it. I also asked him some background questions, one of which proved very revealing. It turns out that…
- This real analysis of real data was — get ready — reviewed prior to publication by the exact same people who are disowning it now. Yes, among the people who peer-reviewed it prior to publication were the very same Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner, and Paul Terry. (In addition to them doing the actual review, the lead author, very graciously sharing the credit, wanted to make sure that I indicate that he was only the “organizer and visible author of a team effort.”)
Yes, as is so often the case with these three, they lied about the lies that they lied about. It’s quite ironic that their argument against my original praise of this analysis was to insist that because my source was their own lies, my own analysis was unreliable. These lies above don’t include the actual lies I might sue them about, which were lies about me, which are totally separate from their lies about their previous lies. (Their lie about me was that I had a history of outrageously inaccurate statements, none of which they have ever been able to identify.)
These characters aren’t ordinary run-of-the mill alternative fact-type liars. They’re way beyond that.
Their lies go to 11.
Having covered the also-rans last week, here are the first runners-up, as we inch ever closer to the coveted top spot. (To read the original postings, click on the numbered headers.)
Today we are highlighting more people and organizations who’ve made the wellness industry what it is. Wednesday we will complete the listing of the Stars of Wellness, the people and organizations who are making the industry what it should be.
Interactive Health conducted what may be the head-scratchingest screen in wellness industry, a difficult feat given all the competition. For starters, they tested me for calf tightness. It turns out my calves are tight–and right on-site they loosened them. I could feel my productivity soaring…until the left one went into spasm that night and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Still, I can see their point — loose calves are a useful trait for many common jobs.
Next, Interactive Health shattered the record, previously shared by Total Wellness and Star Wellness, for most USPSTF non-recommended blood tests. I don’t know what half these things are, which means neither does Interactive Health.
Where would a Deplorables Greatest Hits List be without the Koop Award Committee?
Every year, like clockwork, the industry’s biggest liars select the industry’s biggest lies. 2016 started with last year’s winning program, McKesson’s, being exposed as a joke in Employee Benefit News, and ended with this year’s winner, Wellsteps, being exposed as a joke in STATNews.
When bestowing this year’s award to their fellow Committee member, Wellsteps, they didn’t even pretend not to lie. And what lies they were! Not just regular-sized lies. Not even supersized lies. We’re talking lies that would make a thesaurus-writer blush.
To put their lies in perspective, I may not even know you, but if a Koop Committee member told me the sky was blue, and you told me the sky was green, I’d at least go look out the window.
PS Not everyone on the Committee is a liar. One person is quite honest and can’t believe what goes on every year. I don’t want to name my source because in Koop-land, honesty is grounds for termination. As is getting validation. Or adopting the Code of Conduct. Basically ethical behavior is off-limits. An executive of one group, Altarum, published a blog critical of wellness and <poof> the Committee disappeared them.
Michael O’Donnell seems to crave my attention. When he managed to go three whole months without being featured in a TSW posting, he came up with these irresistible nuggets:
- “Wellness is indeed the best thing since sliced bread, up there with vaccines, sanitation and antibiotics.”
- “[Wellness] can prevent 80% of all diseases.”
- “The ROI from wellness is very strong.”
- “Workplace health promotion may play a critical role in preserving civilization as we know it.”
If nothing else, Mr. O’Donnell presents the best argument for requiring educational standards, or at least a GED, in this field — by demonstrating his total lack of understanding not just of wellness, but also of vaccines, sanitation, antibiotics, percentages, diseases, ROIs, and preserving civilization as we know it.
Oh, yes, and multiplication as well. His article on how to increase productivity with wellness used an example demonstrating a productivity decrease. In 2016, he also went on an anti-employee jihad that should be read in its entirety. (Translation: some of my best work…) Highlights:
- Prospective new hires should be subjected to an intrusive physical exam, and hired only if they are in good shape. OK, not every single prospective new hire — only those applying for “blue collar jobs or jobs that require excessive walking, standing, or even sitting.” Hence he would waive the physical exam requirement for mattress-tester, prostitute, or Koop Committee member–because those jobs require only excessive lying.
- He would “set the standard for BMI at the level where medical costs are lowest.” Since people with very low BMIs incur higher costs than people with middling BMIs, Mr. O’Donnell would fine not only people who weigh more than his ideal, but also employees with anorexia.
If employees didn’t already have an eating disorder, what better way of giving them one — and hence extracting more penalties from them — than to levy fines based on their weight? Employees above his ideal weight would pay per pound, sort of like if they were ordering lobster or mailing packages.
These three characters — naturally also on the Koop Committee — managed to pile more lies, sardine-like, into a single page than anyone else in this industry, in the “poison pen” about me they circulated to the media.
A good starting question would be, why on earth would anyone think that they can send a “confidential” letter to the media? The media are in the business of disseminating information. You see, that’s why they call them “the media.” Am I going too fast for you, Mr. Goetzel?
The funny thing about these Einsteins? Their defense to my observation that their very own numbers show wellness loses money was that their very own numbers were made up. Imagine being so dishonest that the way you defend yourselves is by claiming you fabricated your own report.
That’s not even the punchline. It turns out that this allegedly fabricated report is in truth an actual non-fabricated report. So, in the immortal words of the great philosopher LL Cool J, they lied about the lies that they lied about.
How did I learn this? That will be the subject of a post early year.
Watch this space…soon we will be naming the industry’s #1 Deplorable of 2016.
We are now in Ron’s wheelhouse, which is publishing peer-reviewed articles in third-tier wellness trade journals. Let’s see how he does.
For those who are new to this thread, Part 4 is here, and links to earlier installments. The recording is here. Time stamps roughly synch up.
Ron says he is a researcher, and publishes in peer-reviewed journals. He “applauds” me again for giving them the “opportunity” to correct their many errors, and says the comments I make are often “right on the money.”
It is indeed a creative use of the word “opportunity,” as in: “Last year the IRS gave me the opportunity to be subject to an audit.”
He says “that’s what the scientific method is all about, having peer reviewers critique your work and find problems.” And yet, I’ve never, ever been asked to peer review anything that he and his cronies have ever published. Go figure.
He would like “us” (meaning him and his cronies) to be able to review my work, even though I’m not allowed to peer-review theirs. He says he has “never seen an article by Al Lewis…to review.”
Hmmm…perhaps his internet is down?
Since all my work is right on this site (including links to other work, in “In the News” to Health Affairs, Harvard Business Review etc.) he is free to review it anytime, and we publish all comments. There isn’t really any need to for him to look at our material because mostly it’s his own and his cronies’ material. And you know the mantra from Surviving Workplace Wellness: “In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
As in his opening remarks and in his “secret” letter to the media, he once again criticizes my stuff as being “out there…outlandish,” but gives zero examples.
Ron, in the process of saying something he knows not to be true for a change, accidentally endorses me.
“Ron, would you say I am the most qualified person in peer review in terms of finding the most mistakes?”
“Well, who has found more mistakes than I have?”
[Silence and nervous laughter from the audience.]
I point out that — despite his tacit endorsement just now that I am the best peer reviewer — none of his friends’ wellness trade journals have ever asked me to peer review anything.
And he still refuses to say why he hasn’t claimed the million-dollar reward.
Peer reviewed or not, numbers need to add up, and Ron’s don’t. In one award-winning example, Eastman Chemical, $900/person in savings was shown — with risk factors changing by only 0.17 per person, excluding dropouts.
Ron did not rebut this. Eastman was one of the two Koop Award applications he had doctored when it turned out the applicant had accidentally told the truth but no one on the award committee noticed.
Ron has already run away from most of the industry’s claims, as earlier installments of this debate have observed. Now is he running away from Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana, whom he has co-presented and co-authored with and who naturally is on his Koop Award committee. Aldana recently wrote that I was “sick” because a colleague posted my Harvard Business Review article on his linkedin group and asked what people thought of it.
[2016 Update: Ron is now embracing Steve Aldana and Wellsteps, the first company to admit to harming employees.]
Ron is turning his blacklisting of me into my “plea” to do peer review in his trade journals. I have never “pled” to do peer review in his trade journals, which are mostly useful as punchlines. I merely observe that I’ve never been asked. “You’re very good at calling out mistakes, but you’re not very good at publishing your own research studies.”
He then cites the Johnson & Johnson study (that’s the same Johnson & Johnson that just proposed the Fat Tax). That is the only study he’s ever done that I’ve not been able to invalidate on its face, so he gets his first point of this round here. Not because the study is valid. There wasn’t enough data in it for me to automatically prove that it was invalid, which is a very high standard, but that’s my standard–“face invalidity.”
So there you have it: one company in the entire universe that might possibly have saved money on wellness. And as coincidence would have it, they also sell wellness services. No publication bias there…
November 4, 2016 Update: I just found this J&J study. It is even worse than the others. Employees lying on HRAs, trivial risk reductions…and of course massive savings. It appears that all they did was increase the deductible and then give employees $500 to do wellness, thus shifting the money out of the healthspend into the incentives account, which is not included in the “savings.”
I point out that even though I’m apparently not qualified enough to peer review for his friends who run low-impact journals, I do get called upon to peer review for Health Affairs and other high-impact journals. And most importantly, while I’ve done only two peer-reviewed articles, one led to the dismantling of the North Carolina Medicaid medical home. The other was #1 for 2015 in the American Journal of Managed Care and continues to be cited widely. My award-winning book was peer-reviewed by some of healthcare’s leading figures: Stuart Altman, James Prochaska, Tom Scully, Leah Binder, Bob Galvin, Regina Herzlinger, and Nortin Hadler (the same Nortin Hadler who apologized for poor peer review by one of Ron’s favorite trade journals).
Most importantly, speaking of peer review, Quizzify is the only population health company that may publicly say “our content is reviewed by doctors at Harvard Medical School.”
Ron — whose entire industry loses money and can’t even guarantee not losing money — is now lecturing me on Quizzify’s guarantee of savings and how it needs to be peer-reviewed. I was not expecting to be attacked for offering an incredible, unique, value proposition, so I didn’t have a good answer. Only in wellness is saving money for customers considered a bad idea.
He continues to harp on peer review by his friends-and-relations, but I won the round with one simple observation: “We are not here today because of Ron’s peer-reviewed articles. We are here today because of my non-peer-reviewed articles.”
I could fill a blog with all the nonsense that Ron’s friends who run so-called “peer-reviewed journals” have published. Come to think of it, I have. Examples:
AJHP’s proposal to tie insurance premiums to weight, like ordering lobster or mailing packages
JOEM’s Aetna debacle
AJHP’s “Randomized control trials show negative ROIs.” (I didn’t have to post anything here–this spoke for itself.)
It simply isn’t news any more when a publication aimed at the human resources market publishes an article slamming wellness. It just means a reporter (Bruce Shutan in this case) is actually reporting the facts, rather than assuming a “false equivalence” between wellness critics and wellness apologists. While reporters “take sides” frequently these days in wellness, it’s a rarity when writing on other topics. Normally, reporters use “he said-she said” because a good rule of thumb is that most but not all debates do indeed have two sides. The exceptions to that rule are wellness,* evolution, and Trump University.
Below are the article’s highlights.
Our $1-million reward has gone unclaimed.
Obviously, if the Wellness Ignorati–and we are reviving that phrase by popular demand (for the uninitiated, it means wellness apologists who knowingly ignore facts in order to snooker) — really thought that “pry, poke and prod” programs work, they would have claimed it by now.
Wellness vendors deliberately flout guidelines to make more money
If they were to adhere to US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines, they would be screening appropriately–but make much less money. Optum’s Seth Serxner stood up on camera to blame employers for making Optum flout the guidelines, while HealthMine takes great pride in their ignorance of them. Either way, employees and employers lose.
Ron Goetzel is still flogging weight loss as the answer to an employer’s health cost problems
We aren’t listing everything wrong with Mr. Goetzel’s position, in order to leave space on the internet for other things, such as Google and Amazon.
In a nutshell, according to:
- his own awards that he gives to his friends,
- the Vitality Group (that he is on the board of, but which couldn’t even get their own employees to lose weight), and
- Health Affairs…
…employee weight loss programs don’t work.
He is also still calling McKesson a best practice in wellness, even though their employees gained weight (as noted below), their glucose increased (ditto) and their analytics consultant speaks in tongues.
Additionally, according to his own company’s data compiled for the federal government, even if these crash-dieting contests did work, they would have a trivial effect on health spending, which is mostly unrelated to an employee’s weight in any event. Ron has also backed off his 3-to-1 ROI claims and is now down to 1-to-1 as a goal.
HERO is caught telling the truth
HERO (the Health Enhancement Research Organization — truly the belly of the wellness beast, led by Paul Terry, Ron Goetzel and Seth Serxner) said wellness loses money. Being the one instance in which a wellness organization has told the truth, naturally they tried to walk it back. First, they said, with a straight face, they fabricated their data. They said we should substitute real data for this admittedly fabricated data. We did–and the losses skyrocketed. Then they circulated a “poison pen” letter to the media in which they blamed me for reading their report carefully.
In any event, their argument was undone when the state of Connecticut admitted they lost more than a dollar for every dollar they spent on the program.
And make sure to read to the end–Quizzify is presented as part of the solution.
A bit of a “correction” is in order here, because the article is slightly inaccurate. Please see the Quizzify landing page for the very specific language vis-a-vis Quizzify and Harvard Medical School. Harvard Medical School doesn’t “partner” with vendors. We are the only population health company that is even allowed to use their shield at all.
*Maybe I can’t judge wellness fairly. The Wellness Ignorati would accuse me of bias due to my heritage–my parents were smart.
While most of us were buying supplies for partying down on New Years Eve (in my case, I was in charge of bringing broccoli and Boggle), the federal court in the Western District of Wisconsin quietly handed down an earth-shattering decision in the Flambeau case, which pretty much went unnoticed due to the timing. You may recall that this was the case where employees refusing wellness lost all insurance benefits. The case looked like a layup win for the EEOC. After all, the Affordable Care Act clearly states that penalties for non-smokers are capped at 30%, and this was 100%.
But here’s the rub: Flambeau conditioned the entire insurance benefit on participation in their “pry, poke and prod” program. They knew most employees hate “pry, poke and prod” programs to begin with. So they created a program so onerous that some number of employees would prefer to forego insurance altogether than participate in wellness. And indeed, that’s what happened at Flambeau. This decision means they’re getting away with it, saving thousands of dollars apiece for each employee who refused to submit.
Make sure you catch that distinction between the 30% penalties and the 100% penalties:
(1) It is not OK to penalize an employee more than 30% for refusing to submit to a “pry, poke and prod” program if they already have insurance, or they can get insurance through the employer without this requirement.
(2) However, it is OK to say: “There is no incentive or penalty for wellness once you have insurance, but you can’t have insurance at all unless you submit.” If that seems like an artificial distinction, well, that’s because it is. All an employer has to do is require pry-poke-and-prod before you get insurance.
Assuming other federal courts follow this district’s lead (as they usually do), employers create a 100% de facto non-participation penalty: If you don’t participate, you don’t get insurance, period.
The implications of this case:
(1) It will allow some vendors, like Bravo, to double down on bragging about the “savings” from wellness by creating programs that employees don’t like;
(2) Because the decision only applies to participatory programs and not outcomes-based programs, many companies will either not switch to outcomes-based programs or else maybe switch back.
It also puts pressure on the EEOC to put the kibosh on this end-run around the ACA’s wellness provision. Note that the decision can and should be appealed. Otherwise it is a de facto repeal of a big chunk of the Affordable Care Act.
The bottom line is, now there is universal agreement (albeit inadvertently in the case of HERO, which apparently didn’t mean to tell the truth, but failed to proofread their own document) that wellness loses money. So any pretense of “pry, poke and prod” being about the employee is gone. Obviously, forced wellness isn’t about trying to save the $0.99 PMPM (that’s before program fees!) that HERO Says can be saved with healthier employees. It’s about gutting the key ACA requirement that employers provide insurance.
And unless the EEOC steps up in its final regulations and/or prevails on appeal of Flambeau, they will have succeeded.
Recently we promised a Part 2 to our original proof that wellness savings are mathematically impossible. Commenters said: “How can you have a Part 2 to a proof? You just proved it.”
The previous proof showed wellness can’t save money, even if programs were perfect. This installment proves that even if wellness could save money, it hasn’t. Meaning even if wellness were free, it couldn’t pay for itself. So this proof is independent of the previous proof. For wellness to save money, the wellness true believers would have to find fallacies in both proofs. Either is sufficient to make our case…but we have both.
Quite literally, forcing employees to “do wellness” or lose money has avoided basically zero wellness-sensitive medical events in the 13 years ending 2013 (2014 data isn’t in yet), according to the federal government. If the name “federal government” sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the very same federal government that has passed a law encouraging vendors to pitch “pry, poke and prod” programs to you despite their complete lack of evidence basis, lack of effectiveness, and potential for harm.
Here is the way our analysis was done. We used the government database called the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, or HCUP. That database tracks all hospitalizations due to all causes, by population. So it is possible to focus on just the commercially insured population, which they call “privately insured.”
The privately insured population is 100% sensitive, meaning everyone whose workplace “offers” wellness is in that database. The database isn’t specific, meaning plenty of people in it do not have access to wellness. Nonetheless, the dramatic increase over the 13 years in the number of people whose employers push wellness should produce an equally dramatic decrease in wellness-sensitive medical events. While wellness was rare at the start of this analysis in 2001, today most large companies, nonprofits, and governments have wellness. In total, one can project from the Kaiser Family Foundation data that about 75-million people (or roughly half of all privately insured people) are subject to what Jon Robison has termed wellness-or-else.
Keep in mind that all hospitalizations have been declining over this 13-year period, due to shifts to outpatient, better usual care, etc. So the question is not whether WSMEs have been declining, but whether they have been declining faster than the rates of all other hospitalizations in combination.
Instead, as you can see, these WSME admissions have trended essentially flat over the period, as a percentage of all admissions. In other words, there is no difference between the decline in admissions for WSMEs – despite $7-billion/year being spent on vendors to prevent them – and the declines in every other category of hospitalization. 13 years ago about 6.9% of events were wellness-sensitive. Now it’s about 7.0%. (This is 2013. 2014 is also in, for our customers for whom we track WSMEs, and shows no change.)
This is based on ICD9s 401-405, 410, 430-438, and 250 — strokes, hypertensive events, heart attacks, and diabetes events.
Prima facie, the debate is over, again, just like it was over after our last proof.
Needless to say, the true believers aren’t about to give up their revenue stream just because we’ve double-proved they’re fabricating savings. They will make two arguments against this proof of their own ineffectiveness. First, they’ll argue that wellness reduces all events and other costs equally, so really we should credit wellness for the total cost reduction, not the reduction in just wellness-sensitive admissions. This might seem like a pollyannish view of wellness, but wellness true believers attribute everything that’s good to wellness. True believer Bruce Sherman has even argued that wellness actually reduces industrial waste, so to a wellness true believer, eating more spinach makes every employee a Popeye.
Unfortunately for Bruce and others, the wellness industry’s own HERO report says wellness can only reduce WSMEs. Other costs go up, it says:
Second, one could argue that there isn’t enough penetration of wellness yet to bend this trend, since the HCUP privately insured population includes tons of people without access to wellness, and even many people with wellness access refuse to participate.
Unfortunately, that argument self-immolates. Vendor fees are $7 billion. All these WSME ICD9s combined (using the HERO-estimated admission cost of $22,500) amount to about $11.3 billion. That $11.3 billion includes the half of privately insured people who don’t have access to wellness. Already, when you cut that figure in half to account for those employees with employers who’ve decided not to “do wellness” to them, the $7 billion size of the wellness industry exceeds the size of avoidable events ($5.7 billion). This is consistent with our first proof, which showed the same thing, but on an individual company level. Now—assuming participation is 50%, you need to cut the WSME hospitalization total in half once again. You’re down to $2.85 billion in potentially avoidable events — that companies are spending $7 billion on vendors to avoid.
So, no matter how you look at it, “pry, poke and prod” programs have been singularly ineffective in reducing WSMEs. And if the HERO Guide is right that these are the only admissions wellness can avoid (while other costs increase, as they admit), wellness does not and cannot save money.
Instead, wellness-or-else is basically a pile of, um, industrial waste.
Anyone still want to try to claim the million-dollar reward for showing pry, poke and prod programs aren’t a total waste of resources? I didn’t think so.
Note: This graphical analysis is copyright 2015 to Quizzify. However, any disinterested researcher or journalist may request a copy of the backup material from us.