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Effect of Wellness Programs

By March 21, 2013Commentary

Wellness programs could have several benefits.  They could improve the health of the people who are involved in them.  They could save on health care costs by reducing the need for and intensity of health services over time, and if those savings are large enough, a wellness program might produce a net return over the cost of the wellness program.  Research has not yet really clearly proven any of these benefits.  A study in Health Affairs looked at one large employer’s experience with a wellness program.   (HA Article)   The employer happened to be a health system which incentivized employees to engage in the wellness program, and its results were compared with those of two employers in the same area who didn’t have an insurance-related wellness program.  The basic program required employees to complete an HRA, including biometric screening, pledge to exercise and have a good diet and if they smoking, enroll in a cessation program.  Employees had to do this to get access to a higher level of insurance coverage.  In 2005 and 2006, the study years, over 80% of employees chose to participate.  Certain common chronic conditions were specifically targeted for improvement.  Hospitalizations for these targeted conditions decreased quite a bit over the study period, while hospitalizations for non-targeted conditions did not.  And the spending on hospitalization dropped by about $22 per month per person.  However, prescription spending and outpatient visits rose, including for the targeted conditions.  When the health spending changes and the cost of the wellness program were included, it is unlikely that money was saved overall, but this was only a two year study.  In fairness, wellness programs need to be evaluated over very long periods of time, because much of the savings will accrue from future declines in health care utilization.  And one would strongly suspect that the health of the involved employees and dependents improve, which should always be the first objective in health care.

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