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Is your wellness vendor snookering you? There are certain facts that vendors are not exactly forthcoming about. This is because facts represent an existential threat to the “pry, poke and prod” industry. See how many facts you know — and how many they’ve suppressed — by taking this quiz.
You’ll earn more points, the closer you are. You don’t have to be exact — and honestly I’d worry about you if you got the exact answers to every question. I’d love you for it, but I’d still worry about you.
- Wellness vendors claim they can save significant money by reducing hospital admissions for diabetes and heart attacks, because those admissions are very common. How many admissions per 1000 covered lives does the average employer incur in a typical year?
The Health Enhancement Research Organization claims a certain savings figure for wellness PEPM. But that’s before taking into account vendor fees, extra doctor visits, tests, and prescriptions, compliance issues, employee time needed, overhead and basically anything else. In other words, what is the PEPM savings figure that at Bain & Company we used to refer to as “profit before cost”? Answer to the nearest one dollar. Hint: the answer is somewhere in this quiz.
To eventually save money someday, you first need to improve/reduce the risk profile of your population. According to eternal optimist and wellness promoter-in-chief Ron Goetzel, what is the maximum percent improvement in a risk profile that a company can expect after 2 to 3 years of wellness programming @$150 PEPY?
Speaking of Ron Goetzel, he said “thousands of wellness programs” fail to get good outcomes. What round number did he claim have succeeded?
And speaking of Ron Goetzel again, he finally admitted it was “hard” to force employees to change behavior. How many “very’s” did he put in front of the word “hard” in that admission?
The Wishful Thinking Factor, totally coincidentally abbreviated as WTF, is defined as: Total claimed cost reduction/total number of risk factors reduced. What is the average WTF for the last six Koop Award-winning programs, on average? (Hint: the real ratio of savings to risk reduction is about 0.05x, since even if savings does not lag risk reduction, a maximum of 5% of spending is wellness-sensitive.)
Speaking of risk reduction, employees in the most recent Koop Award-winning program, Wellsteps/Boise, originally tallied 5293 risk factors. Approximately how many risk factors did those same employees tally after participating, excluding dropouts?
In a participants-vs-non-participants study design, what percent of the perceived savings is due to the invalidity introduced by the study design itself in which unmotivated employees are used as the control for motivated employees, rather than health improvements attributable to the actual program itself, according to all four studies conducted on this topic, including three by wellness promoters?
If you use Interactive Health as a vendor hyperdiagnosing the stuffing out of your workforce, what is the annual percentage of employees that will likely be told they have “newly discovered conditions” that “require” a doctor’s intervention?
Of 1000+ wellness vendors, how many are validated by the Validation Institute?
- 2. Yes, only 2. All this wellness fuss is about 2 admissions per 1000 employees. Derivation: the roughly 150,000,000 employees and dependents covered by commercial insurance (mostly from employers) generate roughly 150,000 heart attacks and 120,000 diabetes events. See the HCUP database and enter “410” for heart attacks and 250 for diabetes admissions for the ICD9 for the most recent full year (2014). Scoring: Give yourself 1 point for guessing 4 to 10 and 2 points for guessing fewer than 4.
- One dollar. $0.99 PEPY. As is well-known, they tried to walk this figure back once they realized they had told the truth. Scoring: Give yourself 1 points for guessing $1.00, since the answer in the hint was on that very same line.
- 2%. That’s a few dollars PEPY in savings. (Looks like the HERO report was pretty close, its own protestations notwithstanding.) And you paid $450/employee over 3 years to achieve it. Actually it was 1% to 2%, but we asked for the maximum. Scoring: Give yourself 2 points for 2% or less, 1 point for 4% or less.
- Only 100. Besides Johnson & Johnson, Mr. Goetzel has never disclosed any of the other 99 without others making the observation that they self-invalidate according to their own data. Scoring: 2 points for 200 or fewer, 1 point for 400 or fewer.
- 4. In The Healthy Workplace Nudge, Rex Miller gets Ron Goetzel to admit that “changing behavior is very very very very hard.” Gosh, Ron, do you suppose this might explain why an employer population’s risk factors never noticeably decline? Scoring: 2 points for 4, 1 point for 3 or 5.
- Infinity. That’s because of the next question. The 21% risk factor increase for Wellsteps more than offset the trivial risk reductions achieved by the previous years’ winners. The actual WTFs for the previous years will be the subject of a future posting. Scoring: give yourself a point if you guessed that the WTF was 5 or higher. That would be 100 times the actual figure and still way below the wellness fantasy-league figure.
- 6397. Risk factors rose 21%. And yet somehow, even though the risk profile was deteriorating sharply, the risk profile of the population was also improving enough for Wellsteps to claim that healthcare costs declined 30%. 30% is enough to wipe out wellness-sensitive medical events for the entire Boise teacher population and about 30,000 of their closest friends. (Wellsteps originally admitted that costs increased, but took that slide down when it occurred to them that telling the truth would be inconsistent with their marketing strategy.) Scoring: 1 points for 5500 to 6000 or 6600 to 7000, 2 points for 6001 to 6599.
- 100%. It turns out that the participant-vs-non-participant study design is responsible for all the perceived savings that wellness vendors claim for programs. The New York Times just explained how, in the landmark University of Illinois study, both the “gold standard” RCT methodology and the invalid par-vs-non-par methodology were used and had completely different results. This also happened three other times (summarized here) — with Newtopia, Health Fitness Corporation, and a study done by the chairperson of the Koop Committee showing how feeding diabetics more carbs would reduce their costs by improving their health. Literally, 4 studies — all of which were run by people trying to show savings — showed exactly the same thing. Scoring: all or nothing — 1 points for 100%.
- 45%. This is because running 40 inappropriate tests on every employee makes it inevitable that at least 1 or 2 of those tests reveal a false positive. Scoring: Give yourself 2 points for guessing between 40% and 50%, 1 point for 30% to 39% or 51% to 60%.
- Four. All four are honest and make modest claims they can defend or valid contractual representations. AND, they actually screen according to guidelines! (In the wellness industry, doing something appropriate merits an exclamation point.) They are: It Starts With Me, Splashlight, Sustainable Health Index, and US Preventive Medicine. That’s <1% of all wellness vendors. Scoring: give yourself 1 points for 8 or fewer.
0-2 points. Has your wellness vendor sold you a bridge too?
3-5 points: Your wellness vendor is blocking your internet connection
6-9 points: Nice work!
>9 points: Send your fifth-grade math teacher a thank-you note for doing a better job than the wellness vendors’ teachers did.
Four of the most stable genius vendors in the wellness industry have penned a letter to Montana’s junior senator, in which their usual wellness savings propaganda — contrary to all evidence, of course — ends with a plea to confirm EEOC appointees who they hope will institute new rules by January designed to allow them to continue to harass employees in order to enhance their own revenue streams.
Being wellness vendors, naturally they got the facts wrong. Even if a new chairperson were appointed, the EEOC has already said it won’t issue rules by January. Besides, the idea of just adding a staff member and then immediately issuing rules is ludicrous. Anyone with any insight into how the rulemaking process works knows that’s not how the rulemaking process works.
Facts and insights are two of the many things wellness vendors have trouble comprehending, along with data, integrity, math, and — as we’ll see below — irony. (And, also, as we’ll see below, wellness.)
Their specific language:
Without clear guidance from the EEOC, we fear a Wild West of litigation could re-emerge as did it prior to the EEOC guidelines…jeopardizing programs that are improving the health of America’s workforce.
For months, we have been urging companies to take an obvious and painless step — requiring no government regulation or intervention or plaintive pleas to seemingly random junior senators from seemingly random states — to insulate themselves from this pending “Wild West” litigation.
Specifically, by offering alternative vendors such as Quizzify to indemnify themselves from this possibility, employees save money immediately and educate employees at the same time they avoid liability.
Having to offer Quizzify would be these vendors’ worst nightmare (since most employees would much rather learn something useful than be screened and told to eat more broccoli), and yet the letter’s four signatories are probably the four vendors most likely to be sued by employees if they don’t offer Quizzify as an alternative. Let’s look at each in turn.
Bravo is the only vendor in the wellness industry to publicly brag about how much “immediate employer cost savings” can be obtained by fining employees who decline to have the stuffing screened out of them in violation of all US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines. Of course, Bravo’s program itself saves no money according to its own findings. There is also a question about their financial solvency, since they apparently can’t afford an internet connection.
Health Fitness Corporation
Health Fitness Corporation (HFC) bragged incessantly about its “life-saving, cost-saving catches” of 514 Nebraska state employees who had cancer. This was fairly easy to accomplish because it turned out, as HFC later admitted that they didn’t have cancer in the first place. (Ron Goetzel kindly forged a portion of a letter from Nebraska’s Governor to replace the old braggadocio with the new admission. I have to give him credit for loyalty here. He was willing to risk a felony charge in order to support his friends.)
Bragging about how many sick employees they hyperdiagnose is a pillar of the wellness industry. In this case, HFC found all these false positives likely because they “waived” screening guidelines so that anyone of any age could get a colonoscopy, and sent out solicitations featuring a model way too young to be indicated for one.
“Waiving” screening guidelines is the wellness industry equivalent of “waiving” the minimum age requirement for a driver’s license. Fortunately for the very stable geniuses in the wellness industry, there is no regulation requiring wellness vendors to understand what they are doing, and they take full advantage of that loophole.
HFC also saved 20% on a wellness program with Eastman Chemical. This was also quite easy to accomplish because it turned out they didn’t even actually have to implement the program. Simply splitting the group into participants and non-participants did the trick. As you can see from their Koop Award application below, the program already “saved” about 20% between 2004 and 2006 during the baseline period, before they started giving employees the aptly named “treatment.”
The Incidental Economist was very impressed with this study design. (Not!) But I’ll tell you who really was impressed: Ron Goetzel. He gave HFC Koop Awards for both studies. For those who are not familiar with the it, the Koop Award recognizes the most stable geniuses in the wellness industry who are also sponsors of the Koop Award.
Wellness Corporate Solutions
Along with whining about how “shrill” I am (examples being…?), Wellness Corporate Solutions is worth “siting” (add English to the list of things wellness vendors don’t understand) for its crash-dieting contests, in which employees binge and then starve themselves to win prizes. Lately they’ve added a new twist: water-drinking contests. Obviously the first is bad for you. Overhydration turns out to be a bad idea. It doesn’t exactly enhance your productivity, if you catch my drift. Oh, yeah, and you also have to make sure you don’t die.
Viverae may or may not harm employees. Obviously it fabricates its savings (claiming a $739/employee savings on a health score improvement of 2.4% creates an industry-leading Wishful Thinking Multiplier of 307), but catching a vendor lying is dog-bites-man in this industry. The more amusing thing is their “savings guarantee” which, this being the wellness industry, doesn’t guarantee savings for many reasons, not the least of which is there are none. You also have to “require” employees to submit to screens. No wonder they are worried about being sued.
Here is a guarantee of my own: I guarantee (and will put all consulting fees at risk) that I can prove that if Viverae says you saved anything, you didn’t.
Here’s another guarantee: while hiring these wellness vendors may very well get you sued, this one flyer (plus the Quizzify indemnification) will prevent that from happening.
A word means whatever I want it to mean, neither more nor less.”
Like George Orwell and Humpty Dumpty, the wellness industry (thanks largely to the Business Roundtable pressuring the EEOC) has now managed to redefine wellness programs as their opposite: “voluntary” now means “required,” in the sense that if you don’t volunteer to submit to “wellness or else” you could be fined up to about $3600 (if you spouse is on your insurance), which is a little less than 10% of the median annual wage, and exceeds the amount in many people’s savings.
But the wellness program is still voluntary, according to the EEOC. Or as Surviving Workplace Wellness says: “wellness programs will make employees happy whether they like it or not.”
These wellness people have experience at redefining words as their opposites. Health Fitness Corporation’s Dennis Richling redefined “514 Nebraska state employees didn’t have cancer at all” to “we made life-saving catches of 514 employees with cancer.” He referred to this subtle difference as “semantics.”
Jon Robison and I just posted a “Pulse” on the wellness industry’s creative use of the English language, which rivals their creative use of fifth-grade math.
We hope you hate it, where “hate” means “love.”
No program epitomized conventional “pry, poke and prod” wellness more than Nebraska’s state employee wellness program. And by that of course I mean no wellness vendor has ever lied about outcomes more blatantly or won more awards than Nebraska’s state employee wellness program vendor, Health Fitness Corporation. (Blatantly lying about outcomes and winning Koop Awards, in the immortal words of the great philosopher Frank Sinatra, go together like a horse and carriage.) Their big mistake was admitting it. (See the timeline link.)
Not to mention the cover-up of the lies, that Ron Goetzel and his Koop Committee friends botched so badly that the state’s HR team and procurement department could no longer do the Sergeant Schultz thing. I guess now, finally, Mr. Goetzel will stop referring to this program as a “best practice.”
Now, the program is officially dead. It was close. On October 1, we thought we had lost:
But then last week, following a number of behind-the-scenes conversations and finally a bit of googling by the state:
In other words:
To our new readers, while 2016 was the first time a Koop Award ever went to a company that harmed employees, 2016 wasn’t the first Koop Award ever to go to a company whose own data showed they fabricated results. Below is a history of one of the Koop Award’s Greatest Hits.
For those of you who haven’t been following the saga of the Nebraska state employee wellness program, here is a crash course, aka “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Nebraska State Wellness Program.” If you have been following it, you can skip to the end for the latest installment, Mr. Goetzel’s cover-up of his cover-up.
By way of background, this program is called “wellnessoptions” (imagine e.e. cummings-meets-poking employees with needles-meets-a sticky spacebar). They used to say the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire. Likewise, wellnessoptions is neither optional, if you want a decent deal on healthcare, nor wellness. Instead of wellness, it features a hyperdiagnostic anti-employee jihad in which Health Fitness Corporation (HFC) diagnoses employees but does nothing about the diagnosis except take credit for it.
TIMELINE — PART ONE: HFC’S TROUSERS COMBUSTED
September 24, 2012, 2:00 PM
I read Health Fitness Corporation announcement that its customer, the state of Nebraska, won Ron Goetzel’s C. Everett Koop Award for program excellence.
September 24, 2012, 2:01 PM
I recognize that the cancer outcomes were obviously made up. Until then, I hadn’t been following the Koop award closely enough to realize that making up outcomes was apparently one of the award criteria, as I later came to learn.
I read the full write-up on the program and realize that not only were most of the other outcomes made up, but they had actually lied about saving the lives of cancer victims. If you screen a few thousand people for colon cancer, you don’t find 514 cases of cancer, and you certainly don’t save their lives, as HFC was claiming. And you absolutely don’t save money, as they were also claiming. All this is even more true when you waive age-related guidelines and let anyone get screened, and encourage overscreening by sending out 140,000 letters to state employees graced with the picture of a beautiful young model way too young to be getting a colonoscopy.
How this invalid nonsense ever got by all the eagle-eyed Koop Committee members would be a mystery, except that HFC is a sponsor of the Koop Committee.
I review the entire application and all the marketing materials. It becomes obvious that the entire thing was made up, not just the cancer part. They claimed to save $4.2 million because 161 of their roughly 6000 participants reduced a risk factor.
The math is quite self-evident. Suppose you doubled the number of participants who reduced risks to 312. It stands to reason that you could save $8.4-million. Double it again to 624 and you save $16.8.
Now double it one more time. If 1,248 people out of those 6000 reduced one single risk factor, you’d save $31.6-million, which is about equal to the entire spending for all 6000 participants. And of course most medical spending has nothing to do with identifying previously unrecognized risk factors, so this would be quite a feat. (Do you even know anyone under 65 who had a heart attack that could have been avoided by one more workplace screening?)
I later learn that all the Koop Award-winning program outcomes are made up, using exactly the same math.
November 2012 to June 2013
I try to contact the authorities, like Roger Wilson, who allegedly runs this program for the state, but no one seems to care. The rule of thumb in the wellness industry is that what you say counts. What you do is pretty irrelevant.
June 20, 2013
Breakthrough: The Wall Street Journal editors decide that I am correct, and that the outcomes were made up. Vik and I are allowed to publish this on their op-ed page.
July 14, 2013
Breakthrough again: Another very well-read blogger professes shock-and-awe that any vendor could lie so blatantly and apparently get away with it.
July 15, 2013
Breakthrough yet again: Ace reporter Martha Stoddard of the Omaha World Herald gets Dennis Richling of Health Fitness Corporation to admit that the outcomes — at least the “life-saving catches” of “early stage cancer” outcomes — were indeed made up. Richling tries to spin his gaffe by calling the difference between “life-saving catches of early-stage cancer” and saying someone might possibly get cancer in the future “semantics.” So, according to Richling, having cancer and not having cancer are the same thing.
February 1, 2014
The hilarious wellness industry smackdown Surviving Workplace Wellness is published. Since the HFC Nebraska program had too many lies to fit on a page or two, it gets its own chapter. Here’s the opening paragraph, which in all modesty I must admit is one of my favorite in the book.
February 23, 2014
Nebraska political blogger ReadMoreJoe picks up the scent. He points out that this wellness program is an obvious fraud. The problem is that the same posting is also exposing several other equally obvious frauds, so this one gets overlooked.
TIMELINE–PART TWO: GOETZEL STRIKES BACK
Ron Goetzel isn’t about to sit back and let his friends/sponsors/clients be pilloried for a little white lie about saving the lives of cancer victims who didn’t have cancer.
June 2, 2014
At the Health Datapalooza conference, Ron Goetzel, while admitting the Nebraska cancer outcomes data was made up, claims they/HFC still deserve the Koop Award because he somehow didn’t realize the data was made up at the time the award was granted. And it is true that HFC didn’t actually announce they had made up the outcomes. Ron would have had to actually read the materials to figure it out, same as I did.
Ron Goetzel calls the Nebraska program a “best practice” in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine but refuses to answer any questions about the obvious mistakes and inconsistencies in the article.
After knowing for 16 months that they had lied, Ron Goetzel, writing in Employee Benefit News, finally drops Nebraska from his list of best-practice programs:
Being a fair-minded person, I take it upon myself to congratulate him on his newfound sense of ethics. I don’t specifically agree that what he did was ethical, because the ethical thing would have been to admit complicity, apologize, and revoke their Koop Award. But I do say that Nebraska being dropped from the list of best practices means ethical “progress is definitely being made,” albeit from a low base.
Only 29 minutes elapses before Ron erases all my illusions about his honesty and re-adds Nebraska to the list of “best practice organizations.”
He also adds PepsiCo to the list. I guess losing only $2 for every $1 you spend qualifies as such in wellness, where most organizations lose much more.
In a rally-the-base invitation-only webinar, we are told that Ron has promoted the Nebraska program from “best practice” to “exemplar.” It seems like the more obvious it becomes that the whole thing was fabricated, the more Mr. Goetzel worships its outcomes.
TIMELINE–PART THREE: RON STANDS ALONE
WELCOA finally takes the fabricated case study of Nebraska’s outcomes off their website, 26 months after the fraud was admitted. Perhaps some pressure is being put on them to come clean, given that this is Nebraska’s program and they themselves are based in Omaha.
Just for the record, I’m not saying that an organization founded by all-you-can-eat cafeteria magnate “Warren Buffet” knowingly kept a false document on their site for those 26 months. History suggests they might just be slow learners. [2016 update: WELCOA is under new management, and they appear to be doing a great job, as exemplified by their development of the Employee Health Program Code of Conduct.]
This means Ron Goetzel is literally the only person left who thinks it’s perfectly OK — indeed, a “best practice/exemplar” — to lie about saving the lives of cancer victims. Good luck with that in the upcoming debate. It’s him against the world.
Or, as he sees it, everybody’s out of step but Ronnie.
Nebraska tentatively re-awards the wellness contract to Health Fitness Corporation. I am looking over the precipice towards utter humiliation.
TIMELINE–PART FOUR: THE ORIGINAL DATA DISAPPEARS
November 2, 2015–the original cover-up, on the morning of the Great Debate
At our urging (and we must confess to delighting in creating this “Sting” operation), a third party alerted Mr. Goetzel to the fact that, his protestations to the contrary, the Koop Award Committee did know (even if they had somehow not seen the marketing materials quoted above) that Health Fitness Corporation was making fictitious claims about saving the lives of cancer victims. It was right in the award application. The original award application from Nebraska had originally stated (underlining is ours):
But then, a hour following the call from this third party the morning of the debate, the original award application suddenly read:
In the original application, this excerpt appears in a letter from the Governor of Nebraska. Only now the Governor’s letter says the opposite what he actually wrote. In the real world, this would be considered forgery. In wellness, a forged cover-up of a blatant and admitted lie about saving the lives of cancer victims who didn’t have cancer is considered business as usual. Johns Hopkins and Truven (Ron’s employers) don’t seem to mind either.
The state is rescinding its award to Health Fitness and terminating its wellness program. In the immortal words of the great philosopher Stewey Griffin, victory is mine.
September 2016: The cover-up of the cover-up
Mr. Goetzel finally acknowledges that Health Fitness Corporation told a whopper, and the Koop Committee accidentally overlooked it. He now calls this an “erratum.” The technical term for it is a “lie-um.” You can’t forge official state documents and then call the whole thing an “erratum.” Is a robber allowed to give the money back after he gets caught and just uncommit the crime?
So now, having admitted that the award-winning vendor told the biggest lie in wellness history (once again, quite a feat), and knowing that all the obviously fabricated outcomes were mathematically impossible, and that waiving age restrictions for screening is akin to waiving age restrictions for buying beer, the Koop Committee finally, after 4 years, rescinded the Nebraska award.
Haha. No one falls for that line any more. Quite the opposite, they are doubling down. They say that whopping lies like this one don’t matter, if you are an award sponsor. You get to keep your award.
Ditto, if your entire claim of “separation” between participants and non-participants is shown to be false but you are sponsor, Ron merely doctors the data and you get to keep your award.
Also, if it turns out you lied about your savings because there was no change in the biometrics to attribute the savings to, but Ron was a consultant on your project, you get to keep your award.
Likewise and as was confirmed in 2016, if you are a committee member, as Wellsteps’ CEO was until recently, despite your own data showing that you actually harmed employees, you get to keep your award.
Bottom line: as a friend-of-Ron, you might get to keep your award even if you shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.