The Intersection Between Wellness and Health Care

Pharmaceutical company CVS Caremark raised eyebrows in March when the company announced it would require employees using its health insurance to undergo a “wellness review,” paid for by CVS, to determine their weight, body fat, blood pressure and other health indicators and report that information to the company’s insurance provider. If employees do not undergo the wellness screening, they will be required to pay a $600 annual penalty, according to the company’s website.

This is not an anomaly. With the Affordable Care Act adoption date looming, more employers are offering voluntary wellness screenings and comprehensive health programs in hopes of reducing insurance costs. Critics of this trend, however, believe tying the price employees pay for insurance to wellness goals is giving employers too much power.

More than half of U.S. companies with more than 200 employees report using wellness programs that measure an employee’s weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and other health indicators, according to the 2012 “Employer Health Benefits” report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. More companies are expected to adopt wellness programs as the number of employers providing health insurance continues to rise.

New Affordable Care Act workplace wellness program regulations released in May allow employers to increase rewards for workers participating in wellness programs, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Workers who participate in health initiatives, for example, could qualify for significant deductible discounts. Employees who do not participate, on the other hand, will pay more toward their coverage, which ultimately lowers the employer’s overall insurance cost.

Among the slew of new regulations is a provision permitting employers to offer rewards contingent on workers meeting employer-determined goals, such as lowering cholesterol and losing weight, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. This controversial regulation is what allows CVS to charge costly penalties to employees who do not participate in its voluntary health screenings.

But for companies such as the consulting firm Accenture, which is consistently ranked one of the healthiest employers in the country, wellness screenings are used in conjunction with comprehensive health programs to give employees the tools and support needed to live a healthier lifestyle, according to Julie Wilkes, the company’s North American wellness lead.

“Some of our wellness programs offer incentives like points, similar to a frequent flyer program, where employees can go to an online store and purchase anything from electronics to gift cards,” Wilkes said. “We measure success by tracking improvement in the health and well-being of our employees as measured by our health risk assessment and biometric screening results from year to year. We also survey employees to hear directly from them what they want.”

Instead of penalizing employees who do not participate in wellness screenings, Wilkes said, Accenture rewards and incentivizes those who engage in physical activity, creating a more positive and supportive work culture.

Companies that facilitate comprehensive wellness programs instead of merely providing a wellness screening find their employees are more engaged, energetic and happy in the workplace, according to Chris Boyce, CEO of the health program consultancy Virgin HealthMiles Inc., part of Virgin Group. The company conducted a survey of about 1,300 businesses and 10,000 employees in June on the topic of wellness programs.

“Traditional wellness programs like health reimbursement accounts and biometric screenings don’t actually change behaviors,” Boyce said. “What we’ve found is that when employers use these types of traditional programs in tandem with more modern, consumer-focused wellness programs, bringing them all together in one platform, employers are better able to help employees change behaviors by creating a more compelling employee experience.”

Health initiatives are becoming a corporate priority as businesses are searching for more ways to control or manage rising health care costs. The top challenges businesses faced in controlling health care costs were an employee’s poor health habits and the underuse of preventive services — which can be targeted and corrected by an employer’s wellness strategy — according to the 2012 Health Productivity Survey by the insurance broker Willis.

For businesses to get the most out of health initiatives, employers must make sure the program complements its corporate culture, is easily accessible to employees at work and allows employees to get social support from colleagues, according to Boyce.

“If I can offer any advice, it’s for employers to think about how to build or evolve their wellness programs from being force-fed to culture-driven,” Boyce said. “If done right, wellness programs can be highly contagious and effective. But remember that engagement starts from the top.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.