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Business Wellness Programs Are No Quick Fix to Health Costs, Study Says

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

July 29, 2010 – Employers are leaping at chances to put wellness programs in place but it’s unclear if many are making much difference in workers’ health, according to a new study by the Center for Studying Health System Change for the nonpartisan National Institute for Health Care Reform.

Programs that succeed have to be comprehensive, linked to business strategy, boosted by champions within the company and backed by senior leaders, the study said. If that commitment isn’t there, companies might as well stay on the sidelines.

The study by Ha T. Tu and Ralph C. Mayrell found some common themes emerged from interviews with industry experts and employers who run wellness programs. Wellness is a hot topic and the health care law expanded some workplace wellness regulations that allow employers to vary health insurance premiums based on employees’ ability to meet health standards. (See related story, CQ HealthBeat, June 11, 2010)

But the study’s assessment of the current state of worker wellness programs was decidedly skeptical. Tu and Mayrell said that programs have to be customized for particular businesses, and one-size-fits-all programs bought off the shelf likely won’t draw much interest or participation. Also unlikely to make much difference are online programs with no followup.

Successful programs are championed by senior leaders in companies with “reasonable expectations” who are able to communicate clearly the reasons why workers should participate, said Tu and Mayrell. Trying to sell programs in workplaces rife with turmoil or financial discord is “futile,” they said. “Mutual trust is key to effective wellness programs,” they wrote.

Employers can’t look at wellness programs for a quick fix because that’s unlikely to happen, and isolating the impact on health cost trends might not be possible, they added.

Wellness provisions in the new health care law have been viewed favorably by employers but many in the wellness industry and employers say the law didn’t go far enough and argue the federal government should authorize subsidies through employer tax credits.

Probably not a good idea, the authors said. “The evidence to date suggests that the gains from wellness programs are too uncertain to justify broad employer supported subsidies,” Tu and Mayrell wrote.

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