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NY Times’ economists and Pulitzer Prizewinning LA Times columnist skewer “voluntary” wellness incentives
In the immortal words of the great philosopher Dizzy Dean, don’t fail to miss it.
Ever since Ron Goetzel’s Penn State debacle, the news cycle has been the Health Enhancement Research Organization’s (HERO) kryptonite.
To be sure, they have other enemies too — transparency, integrity, math, data, facts, employees, smart people — but those bullets just bounce off them. How do we know this? We think we’re making an impact with our exposes and whistleblowing — and yet forced, incompetent and sometimes harmful prying, poking and prodding continues unabated. When we prove that none of the wellness numbers add up and back that proof with a monster reward for disproving us, they retreat rather than fight — but then they pop up again, whack-a-mole style with yet another claim: “Oh, well, numbers don’t have to add up. It’s all about the value.” Yada yada yada.
That’s why they never respond to anything we ever write, or for that matter anything anyone else ever writes. STATNews, for example, wanted to host a point-counterpoint, but couldn’t find anybody to oppose me. Health News Review posted a podcast with no opposing views.
The one wellness executive who failed to understand the news-cycle-as-kryptonite dynamic was Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana, not exactly a rocket scientist even by the standards of the wellness industry. In an attempt to get his name in the paper, he accidentally admitted that all of Boise’s Koop Award-winning numbers were fabricated. Yes, he humiliated himself, yes, he admitted he lied, yes, he could easily have been charged with defrauding the city…and yet Boise is still Wellsteps’ account.
If they had any lingering doubt, that lesson taught the rest of these people to stay out of the media even if it means taking a few punches.
That brings us to today. I’ve been scouring Google to find someone — anyone — to take the side of the EEOC in what is likely to become an extended news cycle over the definition of “voluntary” for wellness programs. So far, no one has stepped forward to support the EEOC’s and HERO’s argument that “voluntary” can mean “we’ll fine you up to $2000 if you don’t.” Instead, both The Incidental Economist (the NY Times‘ economics bloggers) and the LA Times‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist, Michael Hiltzik, come down strongly on the side of AARP, Merriam-Webster, Funk & Wagnalls and Dictionary.com.
- In 2015, the EEOC proposed a rule treating wellness programs as “voluntary” if they involved premium differences of no more than 30% of the full cost of a health plan. Worker advocates were aghast — 30% of a full-price premium could amount to thousands of dollars, and since the workers’ share of their health plan premiums often was only 30% or so, the penalty could double their annual costs. For many families, that made voluntary programs effectively mandatory.
- [The judge] observed that the 30% incentive “is the equivalent of several months’ food for the average family, two months of child care in most states, and roughly two months’ rent.” He recognized that a fee of that magnitude could be especially coercive to lower-income employees
- The biggest problem with wellness programs is there’s no evidence that they work. The most frequently cited statistic in their favor came from Safeway, whose claim to have saved on per capita healthcare costs after implementing a wellness program prompted drafters of the Affordable Care Act to liberalize the incentive rules. But Safeway’s story was soon debunked. Other supposed success stories came from wellness program promoters themselves, who were engaged in selling their wares to big employers.
- The rule allowed employers to impose huge penalties on employees who refused to participate in wellness programs, even though the Americans with Disabilities Act says those programs must be “voluntary.”
- In the court’s view, the EEOC had basically ignored the problem in its rulemaking, asserting without explanation that wellness programs backed by enormous penalties were somehow voluntary. I applauded the decision: I’ve been railing against the EEOC for two years now for blessing mandatory wellness programs over the ADA’s express prohibition.
Once again, I’d urge everyone to sign up for the January 18 webinar. There will be more clarity, you can ask questions, and you’ll hear questions from others too. What you won’t hear is a peep out of HERO. Not because we censor or blacklist adversaries (that’s their signature move, not ours — one person reports that HERO took him off the program because he admitted to respecting my work) but because they know better than to, in the immortal words of the great philosopher John Cusack, say anything.
It’s time for the 2017 Deplorables Awards, lovingly bestowed on those vendors who do the best job making other vendors look good.
The good news is that you don’t have to actually win the Deplorables Award to sue me. Runners-up are eligible too. Here is my address for hand-service delivery most of the year:
890 Winter Street #208, Waltham MA 02451
In case you decide to sue me between June 22 and August 8, use:
8 Paddock Circle, Chilmark, MA 02535
And don’t leave out my attorney:
Josh Gardner, GARDNER & ROSENBERG P.C., 33 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02108
I don’t know how much more I can do for you, other than lick the envelope. So go for it. Don’t make me beg.
But, remember, unlike your usual business model, in court you are required to actually tell the truth (I would be happy to explain to you how that works), meaning there is no chance of your winning — or likely even avoiding summary judgment, since none of the evidence is in dispute. It’s all your own writings. Oh, and I do my own cross, which means you won’t be able to find an expert witness. Anyone who knows enough about wellness to be an expert witness also knows enough about wellness to know that attempting to defend you would be a humiliating, on-the-record experience.
And there is always the chance that some annoying jerk might blog about it…
The 2017 Runners-Up
Imagine a four-square matrix with competence on one axis and integrity on the other. The people and organizations we’ll be highlighting today would intersect with the companies mentioned in Monday’s posting at only one single point.
Springbuk and Fitbit
As many of you recall, earlier in the year we analyzed the study done by Springbuk that secretly financed by Fitbit. Or maybe I need new glasses, because I just couldn’t find the disclosure in the Springbuk report that this paean to Fitbit was financed by Fitbit, the way Nero used to have the judges award him Olympic medals.
Coincidentally, the study showed Fitbit saving gobs of money because employees taking more than 100 steps a day spend less money than those taking fewer. However, a simple tally of one’s own footsteps shows that it is impossible not to take 100 steps a day unless you are both:
- in a hospital bed; and also
- on dialysis.
This 100 steps-a-day threshold was repeated many times in the study, with no explanation of how that number came to be. However, it turns out we owe these two outfits an apology. Fitbit and Springbuk have told a number of people privately (not publicly, in order to avoid an embarrassing news cycle) that they didn’t really mean to say that 100 steps a day constituted activity. They meant to say that taking 100 steps a day implied you had your Fitbit on. My apologies for failing to read their minds that their conclusions were based on reading people’s minds to determine whether they wore the Fitbit deliberately, or simply forgot/remembered/cared to put their Fitbit on.
They never did explain — privately or publicly or to anyone — how employees who took an average number steps during the baseline year could show huge savings by taking an average number of steps in the study year too.
They also never explained how these two statements didn’t completely contradict each other, even though I specifically asked them to in a personal letter, excerpted here:
Third, can you reconcile this statement…:
“The materials in this document represent the opinion of the authors and not representative of the views of Springbuk, Inc. Springbuk does not certify the information, nor does it guarantee the accuracy and completeness of such information.”
“This demonstration of impact achieved by integrating Fitbit technology into an employee wellness program reinforces our belief in the power of health data and measurement in demonstrating ROI,” said Rod Reasen, co-founder and CEO of Springbuk.
National Business Group on Health
Next up is the National Business Group on Health. Last year they made the list for criticizing the US Preventive Services Task Force for not demanding enough screenings, in a country that is drowning in them. Not content to rest on those laurels, this year they earned an Honorable Mention for inviting Dr. Oz to keynote on the role of quackery in corporate wellness, and perhaps tell us about his latest lose-weight-by-eating-chocolate miracle diet.
HERO of course also earns a runner-up award. 2017 will be remembered as the year they finally came to grips with the realization that a business model based on fabricating outcomes requires that perpetrators possess that critical third IQ digit. Without that extra “1”, an organization trafficking in math that can at best be considered fuzzy is going to be outed.
This year’s set of lies? By way of background, their 2016 poison-pen letter insisted they had fabricated that data set showing that wellness loses money without disclosing that it was fabricated — and also never reviewed their fabricated data before publication. Early in the year, I had the insight that, wow, this “fabricated” Chapter in their guidebook is so much better than the other chapters that something is amiss. No one at HERO can analyze data competently…and yet, here it was, a competent data analysis.
I did something I had never thought to do before, which was look up the actual author of that chapter. It was Iver Juster MD. He was a great analyst even before he read all my books, took all my courses, and achieved all my certifications in Critical Outcomes Report Analysis.
- Whereas Paul Terry and Ron Goetzel had insisted that Iver fabricated the data, Iver said, of course he didn’t — whatever made me think that? (“If it wasn’t real, I would have disclosed that,” he observed. Of course he would have. Iver has tremendous integrity.)
- The Board discussed and reviewed his chapter at length, and made helpful suggestions, for which he was quite grateful. This review process required “countless hours,” just as the HERO document says:
The number of transparent lies HERO tells could make a president blush. In the immortal words of the great philosopher LL Cool J, they lied about the lies they lied about.
Even though 2017 was an off-year for them in terms of the number of lies, they still told enough to be named a runner-up.
Wellness Corporate Solutions
Next is Wellness Corporate Solutions, famous for its crash-dieting contests. WCS now offers a water-drinking contest. The idea is to set up a “challenge” for your team to drink more water than other teams. They call this a “healthy competition.” I guess they didn’t get the memo that forcing yourself to drink when you don’t want to drink, just to make more money, is anything but healthy. Here is a novel idea: drink when you are thirsty. Evolution 1, WCS 0.
Perhaps as an encore, WCS, Dr. Oz and the National Business Group on Health could team up to offer a chocolate-eating contest.
I looked into this outfit to see where they get their ideas. The CEO previously ran something called the Washington Document Service. That qualifies her to run a wellness company. As Star Wellness says, to run a wellness company successfully, your background needs to be in sales, or “municipality administration.” After all, what is more central to administering a municipality than documents?
What fun would a list of runners-up be without Wellsteps, the proud recipient of the 2016 Deplorables Award? While their streams of consciousness weren’t as memorable in 2017 as in 2016 (“It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy“), they get credit for trying. Their 2017 weight-loss campaign was headlined: “This campaign is not really about weight loss, it is about helping you apply the behavioral secrets of those who have lost weight.”
So if your kids ever want you to teach them how to ride a bike, say: “It’s not really about riding a bike. It’s about helping you apply the secrets of people who have ridden bikes.”
And what secrets are we talking about? What person who has lost weight doesn’t brag to everyone or even write a book? If there is a secret to weight loss, like eating chocolate, Wellsteps owes it to the country to tell them. Don’t make us beg.
Odds and Ends
No Koop Award winner this year, but an honorable mention to past winners and runners up for their commitment to wellness:
Sounds like in 2018 the logical winners would be Philip Morris, or maybe The Asbestos Corporation of America.
Veering briefly into the public sector, kudos to Representative Virginia Foxx, (R-NC5) for introducing the Required Employee DNA Disclosure Act. Even HERO thought it was a dumb idea…and their threshold for thinking something that increases wellness industry revenues is a dumb idea is quite high, having all rallied behind the Johnson & Johnson Fat Tax, in which companies would be required to disclose the weight of their employees.
Next up…the winner of the 2017 Deplorables Award
Included in this concluding batch is yet another wellness program debacle regarding eating disorders. The irony is, this one takes place at an addiction facility. I’m always maintained that, along with facts, integrity, math, data, employees and me, the wellness industry has no appreciation of irony. Examples:
- The most recent Koop Award for the best wellness program went to Wellsteps, who according to their own data made employees worse;
- Vitality pitches its weight-loss program even though by their own admission they couldn’t get their own employees to lose weight;
- The wellness industry’s own trade association, whose job is to show wellness saves money and improves morale inadvertently admitted that wellness loses money and damages employee morale.
This final set of case studies concludes with a statement from an actual named LCSW who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.
Links to previous installments:
- Part 1: Recovering executive with anorexia nervosa begs not to be weighed…DENIED
- Part 2: Recovering technologist with bulimia told to “fit into his skinny jeans”
- Part 3: Recovering employee with anorexia nervosa told “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and advised to eat only half her lunch.
- Part 4: Recovering employee with bulimia and a severe grain allergy penalized for eating too many natural fats, as correctly prescribed by her dietitian…and begins purging again.
The school where I work recently instituted a wellness program. In order for our insurance premiums to not increase, we had to go through a series of tests: total cholesterol, blood pressure, BMI, LDL cholesterol and fasting glucose. If we did not “pass” 4 out of 5 of these biometric screenings, we had to go through six weeks of phone therapy and then have the screenings done again after that time.
If, after the six weeks of phone therapy, the results did not change, our insurance would go up about $50.00/month.
The whole experience was a nightmare. They conducted the screenings in the music room at school, with different tables and stations set up. About 10 or 12 teachers and staff members were in the room at one time, so there was little privacy.
We moved from one station to the next as each of our results was written down and passed to the next person.
When we got to the end, a wellness “counselor” went over our results. The lady saw my triglycerides number and immediately asked, “Does diabetes run in your family?” “Is obesity an issue in your family?” I asked why. She said that a high level of triglycerides means that the body has “too many fat cells” and that I am at an “increased risk.”
To someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, as I have, this was tantamount to saying “Because of your high triglycerides, you are fat. You are obese.”
Being weighed is always a humiliating and shameful experience for me, as it is for many people with eating disorders, and it can trigger exacerbations of my disorder (treating professionals familiar with eating disorders are well aware of this phenomenon and structure treatment accordingly). To have to be weighed in front of my peers made that experience even worse.
This biometric screening triggered my disorder. I was in tears by the time I got to the last “counselor” and had a very hard time controlling my feelings. Right after this, I needed to get into my classroom and be with my kids. I had to “suck it up,” until the end of the day.
It was horrible and it makes me wonder what is in our future in regard to all of this.
My workplace, an addiction treatment facility, has an employee “wellness” program.
If employees want to obtain the insurance “wellness rate” (the lower of two rates available to employees), we are required to start every year in January with a “health fair” and a “know your numbers screen” where they check weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and cholesterol. Then we are “advised” by a registered nurse to exercise more and eat less (as if that had never occurred to anyone previously).
This year, the medical assistant drawing my blood engaged in numerous behaviors that would trigger most people with an eating disorder. She informed me she “used to be as big as” I am until she “got bypass surgery.” Despite mentioning several times that I see a nutritionist who recommends that I not weigh myself or know my weight, I was asked to guess my weight before I stepped on the scale. I turned around when I stepped on the scale to avoid seeing my weight, but the assistant nonetheless chattered on about my weight.
I was reminded of embarrassing weigh-ins with school nurses and weight loss programs before I was exposed to eating disorder recovery.
This year we are also assigned to a “wellness team” where everyone is supposed to wear pedometers every day and log their steps weekly on a website. Everyone can see everyone else’s steps on the site and a competitive spirit is encouraged.
I am especially saddened and concerned that we have this potentially damaging environment that encourages obsession with weight and numbers in a facility that treats addiction, where one would hope we would be steered away from, rather than toward, the process of addiction to disordered eating.
I have worked with hundreds of patients over the 13 years during which I have worked with people with eating disorders. In the past two years, I have seen a number of patients who were quite negatively impacted by the wellness programs at their place of work.
In one instance, a patient with binge eating disorder reported that she would be financially penalized if she didn’t set weight loss as a goal and make progress toward this goal. However, this was in direct conflict with her treatment goals to stabilize eating and set any goals for weight loss aside. This patient could see how focusing on weight loss increased her binge eating; however, she felt shame and anxiety as a result of these pressures put on her by her employer. She did not feel that as a larger-sized person she could speak up about this injustice.
In another instance, a patient reported that her employer required her to complete a health screening or be charged $600.00, and when she didn’t meet the health targets she was given an opportunity to still get the monetary “rewards” by meeting with a dietician three times. She was also informed that she could get a “Healthy Weight Improvement Reward” by losing five pounds since her last health screening. Again, this is a patient with binge eating disorder whose condition is destabilized by focusing on weight loss. She too felt that as a larger-sized person she could not speak up about how this program could cause her harm.
Next week, and with the help of others, we will ask, what does this all mean? What can be done to prevent or discourage wellness vendors from harming employees?
And once again, kudos to the good guys, the vendors who are not implicated in this series at all, and indeed would never do such things to people:
American Institute of Preventive Medicine, Health Advocate, HealthCheck360, It Starts with Me, Limeade, Redbrick, SelfHelpWorks, Sterling, Sonic Boom, Sustainable Health Index, US Health Centers, US Preventive Medicine
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 in 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.
This afternoon STATNews followed up with more criticism of HR 1313, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act. As measured by comments to their previous article and the Washington Post’s article, public opinion is running about 999-to-1 against it. That’s a lot even for wellness.
Ryan Picarella, of WELCOA, jumped on this and got way ahead of HERO, which is not opposing it. They can’t. Aetna is a major dues-paying supporter, and Aetna loves genetically screening employees for defects. Naturally they fabricate their outcomes. This time we mean it literally when we say: “Lying is part of wellness vendor DNA.” Aetna even invested in a company to further their dystopian vision, a company ironically named Newtopia.
By contrast, this is the kind of leadership we’ve come to expect from WELCOA, filling the ethical vacuum created by HERO.
But, more importantly, this article is the first media mention of Ethical Wellness, our new website dedicated to putting the wellness back in wellness. You might recall the original Workplace Wellness Code of Conduct. Ethical Wellness has updated it. You can sign on to the website, join and endorse, all at no cost. You can also contribute, separately, and be highlighted as a contributor. Scott Life and Dan Keith have both pitched in $500, as compared by to my $10 (to test the donating mechanism — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I’ll be putting in the other $490 shortly. Really. There is also a linkedin group. No mass postings — a true discussion group.
We’ll be talking more about Ethical Wellness in the coming days. for now, it’s about not fining employees for refusing to have their children genetically screened for defects.
Rumor has it that within the next couple of days Health Affairs is going to release a paper in which Ron Goetzel admits that — even with his finger on the scale as it always is (along with the other nine and all his toes) — wellness loses money. This is total vindication for the years in which he has preferred to simply fabricate large savings, based on trivial risk impact, and then accuse me of “outrageous inaccuracies” and other such fanciful tales for observing — accurately, as it turns out — that all his savings are made up.
Yes, I know I’ve said he has admitted wellness loses money several times before, like in his HERO Guidebook, or in STATNews, or in the Chicago Tribune. But those were all gaffes. (A gaffe is defined as “accidentally telling the truth.”) The difference is, this time it’s deliberate.
And, no, he hasn’t sworn off lying. Lying is a thing these days. He was way ahead of the curve on that. Mind you, I have not seen the article, and I wasn’t allowed to peer review it. (Health Affairs allows authors to rule out certain peer reviewers, so he ruled me out — despite admitting not too long ago that I am the best peer reviewer in the field.) However, I anticipated that, given his level of integrity, he would use the completely invalid participants-vs-non-participants methodology, and so I invalidated it for him ahead of time, not that he didn’t already know.
Despite admitting losses, he still holds to the fiction that somehow risk factors decline, a claim which I intend to examine once I see the article. I suspect he didn’t plausibility-test the outcomes (even though his HERO guidebook says to do that) and/or he didn’t count dropouts and non-participants. But we’ll know soon enough.
However, by admitting wellness loses money even if risk factors improve, he just invalidated every single Koop Award he has ever bestowed on any of his buddies. The reason is that in those award-winning situations, risk factors either only improve a trifle (Staywell, 2014 and Nebraska, 2012), don’t decline at all (McKesson, 2015), or increase (Wellsteps and Boise, 2016). None of these non-improvements acknowledges dropouts, of course.
PS Remember my $2-million reward for showing wellness saves money? Let’s make it $3-million.
The best outcomes evaluator in the wellness field is Dr. Iver Juster.*
*Among the subset of males not affiliated with They Said What.
Why Dr. Juster’s Case Study Is the Best Case Study Ever Done in This Field
Chapter 2 of the HERO Guide is a great study and deserves high praise. But before we get into the salient points of what makes this absolutely the best case study analysis ever done in this field, be aware the provenance is not a coincidence. Dr. Juster is very skilled at evaluation. Indeed he was the first person to receive Critical Outcomes Report Analysis (CORA) certification from the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium. (Dr. Juster very graciously shares the credit, and as described in his comments below would like to be listed as “the organizer and visible author of a team effort.”)
Note: the CORA course and certification are now licensed for use by the Validation Institute, which has conferred honorary lifetime certification on Iver gratis, to recognize his decades of contribution to this field. (Aside from the licensure, the Validation Institute is a completely independent organization from DMPC, from They Said What, and from me. It is owned by Care Innovations, an subsidiary of Intel. If you would like to take the CORA Certification course live, it is being offered next in Philadelphia on March 27. You can take it online as well.)
Early in the chapter, Iver lists and illustrates multiple ways to measure outcomes. He dutifully lists the drawbacks and benefits of each, but, most importantly, notes that they all need to be plausibility checked with an event-rate analysis, which he provides a detailed example of–using data from his own work. In an event rate analysis, wellness-sensitive medical events are tracked over the period of time in question.
Wellness has never been shown to have a positive impact on anything other than wellness-sensitive events. Consequently, there is no biostatistical basis for crediting, for example, “a few more bites of a banana” with, to use our favorite example, a claimed reduction in cost for hemophilia, von Willibrand’s Disease and cat-scratch fever.
By contrast, real researchers, such as Iver, link outcomes with inputs using a concept called attribution, meaning there has to be a reason logically attributable to the intervention to explain the outcome. it can’t just a coincidence, like cat scratch fever. As a result, he is willing to attribute only changes in wellness-sensitive medical events to wellness.
Event-Rate Plausibility Analysis
Event rates (referred to below as “PPH” or “potentially preventable hospitalizations”) are laid out by disease on page 22 of the HERO Report. Note the finding that PPH are a small fraction of “all-cause hospitalizations.” Though the relative triviality of the magnitude of PPH might come as a surprise to people who have been told by their vendors that wellness will solve all their problems, Iver’s hospitalization data sample is representative of the US as a whole for the <65 population, in which chronic disease events are rare in the <65 population.
Gross savings total $0.99 per employee per month. This figure counts all events suffered by all members, rather than excluding events suffered by non-participants and dropouts. Hence it marks the first time that anyone in the wellness industry had included those people’s results in the total outcomes tally — or even implicitly acknowledged the existence of dropouts and non-participants. He also says, on p. 17:
For example, sometimes savings due to lifestyle risk reduction is calculated on the 20% of the population that supplied appropriate data. It’s assumed that the other 80% didn’t change but if some of the people who didn’t supply risk factor data worsened, and people who got worse were less likely to report their data, that model would overestimate savings.
Note that the PPH declined only in cardiac (“IVD”) and asthma. Besides the event rates themselves being representative of the employed population in the US as a whole as a snapshot, the observed declines in those event rates are almost exactly consistent with declines nationally over that same period. This decline can be attributed to improvements in usual care, improvements that are achieved whether or not a wellness program was in place. The existence and magnitudes of the declines, coupled with the slight increase in CHF, diabetes and COPD combined (likewise very consistent with national trends), also confirm that Iver’s analysis was done correctly. (Along with attribution, in biostatistics one looks for independent confirmation outside the realm of what can be influenced by the investigator.)
It is ironic that Ron Goetzel says: “Those numbers are wildly off…every number in that chapter has nothing to do with reality” when I have never, ever seen a case study whose tallies — for either total events or event reduction, let alone both — hewed closer to reality (as measured by HCUP) than this one.
Another factor that conveniently gets overlooked in most wellness analyses is that costs other than PPHs rise. By contrast, Iver is the first person to acknowledge that:
The implication, of course, is that increases in these costs could exceed the usual care-driven reductions in wellness-sensitive medical events. Indeed, Iver’s acknowledgement proved prescient when Connecticut announced that its wellness program made costs go up.
The $0.99 gross savings, and Connecticut’s healthcare spending increase, exclude the cost of the wellness program itself, of course. Factor in Ron Goetzel’s recommendation of spending $150/year for a wellness program and you get some pretty massive losses.
The old Al Lewis would close by making some reference to the dishonesty and cluelessness of the Health Enhancement Research Organization’s board. The new Al Lewis will do just the opposite. In addition to congratulating Iver Juster (and his co-author, Ben Hamlin) on putting this chapter together, I would like to congratulate the Health Enhancement Research Organization, for what Iver describes as the “team effort” in publishing it — HERO’s first flirtation, however fleeting and inadvertent, with integrity and competence.
Iver Juster Comments on the article
Iver reviewed this article and would like to add several points. I am only adding a couple of my own points, noted in indented italics:
- It’s important to credit the work to a larger group than just myself. I was the ‘lead author’ on the financial outcomes chapter of the HERO/PHA measurement guide, but the work entailed substantial planning and review in collaboration with the chapter’s coauthor (Ben Hamlin from NCQA) and members of the group dedicated to the chapter (as well as the HERO/PHA authoring group as a whole).
- Yes, I am more than happy to credit the entire group with this study, especially Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner and Paul Terry.
- Nonetheless the work does reflect my perspective and approach on the topic – the important points being (a) select metrics that are impactible by the intervention or program; (b) be transparent about the metric definitions and methodology used to measure and compare the; (c) assiduously seek out potential sources of both bias and noise (in other words, exert the discipline of being curious, which is greatly aided by listening to others’ points of view); (d) understand and speak to the perspective of the study—payer, employee/dependents, clinician/healthcare system, society.
- Be particularly sensitive to the biologically-plausible timeframes in which your outcomes ought to occur, given the nature of the program. Even if optimally implemented with optimal uptake and adherence, we might expect ‘leading indicators’ like initial behavior changes to improve quickly; program-sensitive biometrics (lipids, A1C, blood pressure, BMI) and medication adherence to change in a matter of months; and a few program-sensitive ER/inpatient visits (like worsening heart failure or asthma/COPD exacerbations) to improve within several months (again, assuming the program is designed to address the causes of these events). Longer-term events like kidney failure, heart attack and stroke and retinopathy take much longer to prevent partly because they require sustained healthy behavior, and partly due to the underlying biology.
- This is one excellent reason that the measured event rate decline mirrored the secular decline in the US as a whole over the period, meaning the program itself produced no decline over that period. Possibly they might decline in future years if Iver is correct. Ron Goetzel would take issue with Iver’s assertion — Ron says risk factors decline only 1-2% in 2-3 years.
- Event rate measurement in any but the largest Commercially-insured populations is subject to considerable noise. Though a challenge, estimating ‘ confidence intervals should at least shed light on the statistical noisiness of your findings.
- No need this time because your results hewed so closely to secular trend, reflecting the quality of the analysis.
- It is very likely that the program used in the illustration did affect more than the events shown because it was a fairly comprehensive population health improvement initiative. For example, ER visits were not counted; and collateral effects of ‘activation’ – a very key component of wellness – were not included in this analysis. Assuming the 99 cents is an accurate reflection of the program’s effect on the events in the chart, I’d be willing to increase the actual claims impact by 50 to 75%.
- If your speculation is accurate, that would increase gross savings to $1.49 to $1.73/month–before counting preventive care increases indicated on Page 22.
- Nonetheless, to get effect from an effective program you have to increase both the breadth (number of at-risk people) and depth (sustained behavior change including activation) – but at a cost that is less than a 1:1 tradeoff to the benefit. In other words, you must increase value = outcomes per dollar. This cannot be done through incentives alone – as many researchers have shown, if it can be done at all, it must be the result of very sustained, authentic (no lip service!) company culture.
- We are beginning to pay attention to other potential benefits of well-designed, authentic employee / workplace wellness programs (of which EHM is a part) on absenteeism, presenteeism, employee turnover and retention – and, importantly, company performance (which is after all what the company is in business to do). It’s early days but it’s possible research will show that companies that are great places to work and great places to have in our society will find financial returns that far outstrip claims savings. The jury’s still out on this important topic but let’s help them deliberate transparently and with genuine curiosity.
- Did Ron really say you have to spend $150 per year PER MEMBER on a wellness program? I’d be thinking a few dollars (unless he’s including participation incentives)
- (1) Yes, he did say that; (2) no, he’s not including participation incentives; and (3) welcome to my world.