Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does Wellness Work?

Got an email the other day from the General Agency through which I write most of my group business. They have an electronic "newsletter" with various announcements from the carriers with which they work. One of these, Medical Mutual of Ohio, recently completed a study with the University of Michigan's Health Management Research Center; the study concerned MMO's own employees' experience with company-sponsored wellness programs.
I would prefer to have a link to the study for our readers to check the results against the conclusions, but have been unable to find one. I did contact the media folks at MMO, who directed me to the Research Center's Dr Dee Eddington. I emailed Dr E requesting either a link or a copy of the findings, but he has not yet responded. I'll update this post if/when I receive a reply.
According to the newsletter, MMo has been tracking certain employee health metrics, beginning in 2003. These include "employee health and fitness. Wellness for Life programs include the Rewards Program, the Health Risk Assessment, on-site health screenings, participation in Weight Watchers and online Healthy Living Programs."
In 2008, they turned their data over to Dr E and his team for analysis. The findings seem pretty optimistic:
■ The number of employees at high and medium risk of developing chronic disease decreased, while the number of employees at low risk increased by fi ve percent. Lowering the number of risk factors that lead to disease means employees are getting healthier.
■ The number of employees at high risk for chronic disease associated with a low level of physical activity decreased by seven percent. In fact, in 2008 over half of MMO’s employees made use of the Wellness Center or their own community fitness center.
■ Medical costs increased less year-over-year for employees who participated in Wellness for Life activities compared to non-participants. The increase in medical costs was $268 less for employees who participated in wellness programs versus those who did not.
Now, I'm generally reluctant to even write about these kinds of things because they lack corroboration. But I think the subject's important enough to at least report, and will leave its credibility to the judgment of our readers. If true, this may indicate that such programs, if properly implemented and incentivized, show promise in reducing health care utilization. Larger groups, which are more likely to be self-funded, may even see some health insurance savings.
From a broader perspective, this could have positive effects on insurance rates in general (although they'll likely be subtle and broad-based): if it's true that health care costs drive health insurance costs (and we've demonstrated that they do), then lowering the cost of care should have some mitigating effect on rates.
Time will tell.
Exit question: were stop-smoking prescription meds included in any of the "Wellness for Life" programs and, if so, were they helpful? Further question: if they were included, and helpful, will they be added to the covered rx list?
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