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This is a particularly timely issue because the EEOC is, even as we speak, drafting proposed rules defining “voluntary” to replace the 1984-type rules (where “voluntary” means “forced”) tossed out by a federal court in December 2018. There is a tension between protecting employee civil rights (as EEOC is tasked with doing) and allowing employers to fine employees (or move to high-deductible plans and then “incentivize” them to earn back their deductible) who don’t lose weight or otherwise toe the line. Or even to participate in these so-called “pry, poke and prod” programs, whose clinical value is dubious and often provide misinformation or violate clinical guidelines.
As noted in the link, key EEOC administrators have indicated they will be paying close attention to this debate. Further, the interest level extends to Capitol Hill. Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin (arguably the most influential non-senior Democrat on the Hill) and Republican Senator Lamar Alexander (who runs the Senate committee that oversees health and labor issues), have already commented for the record on this debate.
Someone needs to show up to represent the “pro” side, though — or else the debate will be a rather one-sided affair. So far the invitation to debate has not been accepted — by the exact people who spend their entire lives looking for forums to spread their pro-pry,poke,and prod message.
Let me encourage them to show up by striking a conciliatory tone.
In the past, perhaps this column has not been respectful of my potential adversaries in this debate — the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and/or Ron Goetzel. However, I have great regard for them — when they tell the truth. For instance, Ron Goetzel endorsed Quizzify as being “a lot of fun and very clever,” (minute 42:57 of our last debate). And when he acknowledged I am the best peer-reviewer in the industry (minute 30:38). Or when he acknowledged that it requires 2-3 years to reduce risk by 1-2%.
I am also very very upset with The Incidental Economist (they are the New York Times’ economics bloggers). They referred to Ron’s analysis as — please excuse the technical jargon — “crap.” How dare they!
I also give HERO tremendous credit for admitting that “pry, poke and prod” programs harm employee morale and can damage corporate reputations (like Penn State). But most importantly, for admitting that wellness loses money. It’s a rare trade association honest enough to admit their product –and once again, pardon the technical jargon used in the lobbying industry — sucks. It took real candor and courage to do that, and it is much appreciated. I have great respect for integrity.
I will reciprocate by acknowledging the benefits of “pry, poke and prod.” Screening according to established clinical guidelines, though it won’t save money, is a good idea for long-term employee health — assuming someone is able to interpret the findings correctly and assuming the findings are accurate, and assuming they aren’t already getting too many checkups.
I look forward to matching wits with them next month.
Facts are the wellness industry’s kryptonite.
How do we know this?
Last month you may have seen ads from the Health Enhancement Research Organization for something called The JAMA Wellness Study: A Balanced Discussion.
Unfortunately for anyone who for whatever reason dialed into this session, that’s an hour you’ll never get back. Balancing fact and fiction in a webinar leads to curious results. For instance, here’s what would you’d learn by attending a “balanced” webinar on astronomy:
- Ptolemy: The sun revolves around the earth.
- Copernicus: The earth revolves around the sun.
- Balance: The earth revolves halfway around the sun and the sun revolves halfway around the earth.
And that’s exactly what happened here. Instead of actually presenting factual information, as in their very own candid albeit subsequently retracted foray into integrity, HERO wrote:
Hundreds of research studies published in scientific journals conclude that well designed, evidence based, comprehensive health and well-being initiatives work. We know this, yet occasionally, a new study is published that is inconsistent with the overall body of research.
The only thing more tortured than the grammar of that passage are the logic and the facts. Logically, math and science are not popularity contests. It wouldn’t matter if “hundreds of research studies” say the opposite, if indeed the opposite is wrong as a matter of arithmetic proof.
In any event, there are not “hundreds of research studies” showing “evidence-based” wellness programs work, for the simple reason that (along with the math) the “evidence basis” goes exactly the other way.
- The US Preventive Services Task Force and Choosing Wisely recommend against screening the stuffing out of employees, based on the evidence (“tests and screenings can cause problems”);
- You can’t pay people to lose weight any more than you can pay people to cure disease. Obviously if financial incentives were all it took to lose weight, Oprah Winfrey would be Size 2 by now. Quite the contrary, outcomes-based wellness that by definition requires paying people to lose weight, or fining them if they don’t, causes binge-eating and crash-dieting…and has seriously harmed employees with eating disorders;
- The last 5 winners of the wellness industry’s C. Everett Koop Award lost money–and in the most recent case of Wellsteps, harmed employees;
- The last 12 studies published have shown huge losses.
Having seen this webinar promoted, I thought it would be a good idea to enlist some card-carrying grownups to do a fact-based webinar as a counterpoint to a webinar balancing fact and fiction.
One of the original entries in my Rolodex (and that’s how far back we go) for card-carrying grownups would be the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health. PBGH is hosting a webinar on this very topic (meaning wellness) on July 9th. It will present actual facts about wellness outcomes. In that sense it will be the first webinar of its kind following the release of the JAMA study. Entitled Wellness: Is It Time for a Reboot, the registration link is here.
One fact all parties can agree on, unfortunately, is that this webinar will set you back $25. (There are a few friend-of-Al promo codes available.)
“And so, Little Miss Minnow, the wolf ate the big bad outcomes-based wellness vendor, and all the employees lived happily ever after.”
I have several new posts ready to go — the usual suspects acting out in their usual hilarious fashion — but this is a serious post.
It is time for wellness vendors to stop harassing employees about their weight.
A new article summarizing the voluminous data on the futility and harms of weight-shaming just appeared. It doesn’t contain new data, but rather presents the existing evidence in a clear and compelling format.
This article finds fault in the physician community, but the wellness industry (the outcomes-based companies and their enablers at the Health Enhancement Research Organization (and their enabler-in-chief, Ron Goetzel) is even worse because they tie money to weight loss. They give employees a financial reason to binge before the first weigh-in and then dehydrate themselves and crash-diet before the last one.
This does nobody any good, except of course the outcomes-based wellness vendors — like Interactive Health, Wellsteps, Wellness Corporate Solutions, Staywell, Bravo, Total Wellness, Star Wellness, Health Fitness Corporation and probably a host of others. And there is a special dishonorable mention for HealthyWage, whose entire business model is corporate crash-dieting contests.
They aren’t going to agree to stop on their own, any more than Monsanto stopped making DDT on its own volition. They need to have it made clear that this behavior won’t be tolerated any more.
A starting point is this linkedin post. Like it, comment on it, share it. Once we get to 100 likes and comments, and we’re already more than halfway, I can probably generate media attention.
Sometimes we bring up the many ways in which conventional outcomes-based “pry, poke and prod” wellness programs harm employees. For the first time, we are putting all those harms in one place, a hand clip-and-save guide for journalists, regulators, and legislators.
This series now includes three. First is The Outcomes, Economics and Ethics of the Workplace Wellness Industry. The good news about this one is its exhaustive comprehensiveness in covering the industry’s misdeeds, garnished with 400 linkable footnotes. The bad news is it was published more than 9 months ago, too soon to capture the most recent swarm of misdeeds. For example, it predated Interactive Health’s scorched-earth screening program, designed to leave no employee undiagnosed. (This is literal — according to their own data roughly a quarter of employees discover “new conditions” every year. So in 4 years, every employee, on average, gets one new condition.)
The next was an expose of the economics of wellness, a compelling, fully sourced and linked proof that the whole pry, poke and prod endeavor served no economic purpose beyond enriching pry, poke, and prod vendors. (Screening according to guidelines, should a vendor ever choose to do it even though it would require sacrificing two-thirds of revenues in the name of integrity, would be exempted from this conclusion.) That’s because there is no chance that vendors “playing doctor” at work saves money.
Confucius observed that an mistake that remains uncorrected after being pointed out becomes a lie. Using that definition, two-thirds of the wellness industry –– including the Koop Award Committee and the Health Enhancement Research Organization — is lying, as they are fully aware that their very stable economic genius fantasies are nothing more than the stuff dreams are made of. That also explains why the $3 million reward for showing wellness is not an epic fail remains unclaimed.
The Hazards of Workplace Wellness
This whole thing would be hilarious were it not for all the harms and hazards of workplace wellness visited on employees who are forced to choose between, as Judge Bates noted in his epic decision in AARP v. EEOC, paying two months’ rent or forfeiting that sum by submitting to needles wielded by unlicensed, unregulated and unsupervised wellness vendors. Employees should never be forced into clearly unhealthy situations at work, at least without the hazards being disclosed, and yet, today’s American Journal of Managed Care posting covers six hazards employees face as they navigate the shoals of workplace wellness:
- Actual, well-documented, harms to an exposed population
- First-person case studies and reports
- Crash-dieting-for-money risks
- Flouting of established clinical guidelines
- “Hyperdiagnosis” leading to unneeded medical care
- Incorrect or potentially harmful advice that employees are told to take
Not if you don’t have a license, aren’t required to understand what you are doing, and can force employees to harm themselves or lose money
In wellness, there is a saying that you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.
Now that adage can be extended to cover the May “position paper” published by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO). HERO manages to invalidate its own position even though they didn’t actually take a position in this “position paper” to invalidate. They didn’t even present any data…and yet their data was wrong.
All they said was “critically examine research.” Then they provided four paragraphs which showed why doing precisely that invalidates everything they’ve ever published. See for yourself with each paragraph header.
I agree totally — except with the grammar, English being right up there with arithmetic, logic, statistics, and ethics as being courses that HERO’s staff have struggled with. There has not been a single study in the last five years showing wellness saves money. Sometimes, the studies say explicitly that wellness failed, as the National Bureau of Economic Research did, with Medicare close behind. Or Pepsico. Or the state of Connecticut, which, having thrown away millions on inappropriate screenings and doctor visits, declared that losing money was “a good thing.”
Other times, you have to actually read the study to realize that wellness loses money, as in every Koop Award-winning example in the last six years through 2016, like this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one. Why not 2017? Because in 2017, they couldn’t even find a study that pretended to save money.
HERO has painted itself into a corner here too, because if a study ever does come out that alleges wellness saves money, critics would simply note that it is important to be skeptical of a claim from a single study refuting all the others. Apparently Prof. Baicker is working on a new paper, having found the arguably the most stable genius vendor in the wellness industry to support what are likely to be claims of savings high enough to support her own previous claims of savings, but low enough so they won’t immediately self-invalidate upon exposure to sunlight. And let us not forget that her original conclusions were publicly invalidated, by name, by her own subordinate. Is this is a great country or what?
The HERO position paper complains that:
Media criticism is sometimes based on programs that are not evidence-based, are poorly implemented, or are incorporated into unsupportive environments.
Hmm… so every time a study comes out showing wellness loses money, it’s because the program was done badly? This list of losers apparently includes the aforementioned Pepsico, whose program was so bad they won two Koop Awards.
During my debate with Ron Goetzel, a number of questions from the audience complained that their own company’s wellness program was horrible. Ron’s stock response: your company needs a better program. He reserved particular animus for the Penn State program, which he himself decried as “horrible,” even though he was the prime architect. In another instance he blamed the questioner for being a bad employee.
Since employees dislike being pried, poked and prodded, “unsupportive environments” would include every company, according to WillisTowersWatson. That means the only companies with “best practice” programs would be wellness vendors themselves, like Vitality Group, where, as a wellness vendor, they curated and implemented only the finest wellness interventions available to mankind. Oh, wait a sec, I goofed. That program failed miserably. Shame on their own bad employees!
Vitality Group is in good company. As Mr. Goetzel says, thousands of programs are done badly while only 100 have succeeded.
“Best practices” might include adhering to US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines, not demonizing social drinking, avoiding harms to employees with eating disorders, and not telling people to do stupid things. I’d settle for a program that does any one of those things.
How much time do they need? 3 years? 6 years? They need more? Sure — here is 14 years‘ worth of results for the entire US, showing virtually nothing has happened. The “wellness-exposed” and “wellness-non-exposed” <65 populations are virtually coincident, with only Medicare — where, by definition, there is no workplace wellness — showing a little improvement. It’s all spelled out here.
This paragraph is supposed to be a subtle diss of the NBER paper, which in the 4 months subsequent to publication, the very stable geniuses at HERO have not mentioned by name to avoid drawing attention to it due to its obvious quality and validity. (Welcome to my world.) True enough that the NBER paper covered only one year, though the authors added there was absolutely nothing “trending towards savings” to suggest that the second year would be any different.
The irony of course is that almost every one of those Koop Award-winning programs did claim first-year savings. So first year savings are obtainable, except when they aren’t.
Confirmation bias? HERO is a thesaurus-level paean to confirmation bias. Look at a typical study, and all you will see is citations to studies by their colleagues. Not one study in the wellness trade association’s journal (whose prevaricator-in-chief Paul Terry, also runs HERO) has ever cited me in all of its history, whereas this single article by me cites various members of the Wellness Ignorati 115 times. Not one study in the history of that journal has ever found wellness loses money. At least deliberately. Just like Perry Mason lost one case that was overturned on appeal, that journal accidentally found “randomized control trials exhibit negative ROIs,” but then devoted an editorial in the next issue to overturning their previous conclusion.
Here is HERO’s exact language on confirmation bias:
Confirmation bias is the tendency of researchers to draw inferences from their study that align with their preexisting beliefs but are not well supported by their data.
This is, of course, is how the Wellness Ignorati got their name — deliberately ignoring the overwhelmingly conclusive data that undermines their revenue stream. Examples are legion but my favorite is Larry Chapman breathlessly propagandizing a study that he interpreted as aligning with his preexisting belief that health risk assessments save 50% (“they should be treated like a beloved pet”). Alas, he made the mistake of also providing the actual data, which naturally not only can’t be interpreted to show 50% savings, but also can’t even be misinterpreted to show 50% savings. Or any savings, for that matter.
Larry, one question for you:
The Wellness Industry’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Year just got worse. Seems like CMS (Medicare) and Modern Healthcare are also ganging up on the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and all their cronies.
The headline in today’s Modern Heathcare turns out to be a bit of an understatement:
Wellness programs aren’t generating Medicare savings
Read farther the article and you’ll come up with gems like:
Utiization and expenditures actually increased among program participants… The results mirror those in the corporate world.
Asked for comment, the National Business Group on Health’s very stable spokesgenius, Steve Wojcik, said:
So, while it didn’t reduce healthcare expense or utilization, it seems to have had a positive impact…by preventing or delaying normal deterioration that comes with age.
Where Mr. Wojcik came up with this spin, creative even by wellness industry standards, is anyone’s guess. Nothing in the program suggests it and when he finds something that does prevent age-related decline, I will be the first to nominate him for a Nobel Prize.
The curious thing is this failed approach is not “wellness or else” as Jon Robison calls it. Instead these programs are truly voluntary. Also unlike corporate wellness programs, vendors aren’t harassing healthy employees to eat more broccoli but rather focusing on unhealthy ones. Instead of making healthy 30-year-olds get unneeded checkups, they’re encouraging 70-year-olds with chronic disease to get more medical care.
And yet the programs still don’t work. Color me surprised. I genuinely thought (and I honestly still think) that willing participants in voluntary programs who have chronic disease would benefit from these programs. Perhaps when they re-review another year’s data they will find a benefit.
Alternatively, instead of trying to maintain the revenue streams of their members, perhaps HERO could actually try to find a new model that does provide a benefit. Certainly there are plenty of vendors out there with possibly better mousetraps, but they all have one thing in common: they have no use for HERO’s pet vendors, any more than companies that make solar panels have a use for coal.
Speaking of HERO, let us review HERO’s comments from just last week:
Teddy Roosevelt said, “complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining.” It’s a quote that also reminds me why I’ve not thought of angry bloggers who target health promotion [vendors] as bullies. Though they relish trolling for bad apples, their scolding is toothless, more the stuff of chronic whiners.
Not to mention:
We’re fortunate to work in a profession with a scant number of vociferous critics. My take is that there is one thing these few angry loners want more desperately than attention: that’s to be taken seriously.
Just like wellness vendors like to define “voluntary” as “forced,” I guess in wellness-speak “scant number of vociferous critics and chronic whiners” mean “every commentator,” and an “angry blogger” is any blogger with a great big smile on his face.
OK, this time I’m not the one causing the kerfluffle in the wellness industry, though I will confess to being a force multiplier.
Not since 2014, when the very unstable morons at the Incidental Economist made fun of the very stable geniuses who give out the Koop Award and also unequivocally concluded wellness loses money — combined with continued fallout from the Penn State debacle and the Nebraska scandal — has the wellness industry had such a bad year. And it’s only February.
Let’s review what’s happened so far in 2018. First, a federal judge ruled that voluntary wellness programs need to be — get ready — voluntary. The EEOC’s responded with the legalese equivalent of: “Fine, be that way.”
Next, WillisTowersWatson did something that might get them in hot water with the very stable wellness industry leaders: they were honest. They published a study revealing that employees hate wellness even more — way more — than they hate waiting for the cable guy to show up.
Finally, the very unstable National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a controlled study finding basically no impact whatsoever of a wellness program. More importantly, they specifically invalidated the “pre-post” methodology. Even more importantly, they specifically invalidated 78% of the studies used in Kate Baicker’s “Harvard Study” meta-analysis.
Here is an interesting piece of trivia. The lead researcher is an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. Why is this interesting trivia? Because Katherine Baicker — the Typhoid Mary of Wellness, whose THC-infused 3.27-to-1 ROI is the basis for essentially every subsequent genius wellness outcomes claim — is now the dean of that very same Harris School. I’m just guessing here, but I’d say it’s gotta be a trifle embarrassing when your own subordinate publicly disproves your own study. I mean, it’s one thing for me, RAND, Bloomberg, and anyone else with five minutes, internet access and a calculator to do it, but…your very subordinate?
On the other hand, the researcher, Damon Jones, just demonstrated not just amazing competence, but amazing integrity as well. In other words, he has no future in wellness.
The Wellness Empire Strikes Back
How does the wellness industry respond to these smoking guns threatening their entire revenue stream? Apparently, there is little cause for concern on their planet.
Let’s start with America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the health insurance industry lobbying group. Here is AHIP’s oxymoronic Wellness Smartbrief (January 26), on the NBER research. Yes, it summarizes the same wellness-emasculating study as the one above, though you could never guess it from the headline:
Continuing, AHIP said:
Offering incentives for completing wellness activities might be more cost-effective than offering incentives for wellness screening, a recent study of a comprehensive program found.
Perhaps AHIP has been infiltrated by Russian trolls, because here’s what the NBER article actually said about “completing wellness activities”:
We…do not find any effect of treatment on the number of visits to campus gym facilities or on the probability of participating in a popular annual community running event, two health behaviors that are relatively simple for a motivated employee to change over the course of one year.
Wellness programs might attract mostly employees who are already fitness-conscious, but the potential to attract healthy employees whose medical spending is already low could nonetheless be a boon to employers, the researchers found.
And on the subject of “the potential to attract healthy employees” being a “boon to employers,” the authors actually said:
We further find that selection into wellness programs is associated with both lower average spending and healthier behaviors prior to the beginning of the study. Thus, one motivation for a firm to adopt a wellness program is its potential to screen for workers with low medical spending. Considering only health care costs, reducing the share of non-participating (high-spending) employees by just 4.5 percentage points would suffice to cover the costs of our wellness program intervention.
In other words, you can apply some workplace eugenics to your company by using wellness to weed out obese employees, employees with chronic or congenital diseases, and so on. Good for you!
Soon, if AHIP and others have their way, there will be no need for guesswork in eugenics: employer wellness programs will be able to screen these employees out based on their actual DNA.
AHIP’s take on AARP v. EEOC
And now, AHIP’s take on this landmark case, their ace reporters scooping everyone with this February 2 headline on the December 20th court ruling:
Here are more typical headlines on that court ruling, headlines that came out the same month that the court ruling came out. Perhaps AHIP used the interim six weeks to focus-group various verbs until they settled on…tweak???
AHIP: It’s not just the headlines
One prominent healthcare executive recently attended an AHIP conference and reports:
I just returned from one of the dumbest meetings I’ve ever attended in Washington. Report of a new “study” by AHIP. Turns out people don’t mind health costs all that much, they just want more benefits. And everything is hunky-dory with their health plans, people like them so much. They love wellness benefits and crave more. Prescription drug prices have been nicely controlled thanks to the competitive marketplace (no, I am not making this up or exaggerating for drama). For every $1 employers spend on benefits workers get $4 in value. Priorities for SHRM rep: Fitbits for all employees, solving the outrage that only 20% of her employees got an annual physical. 85 cents of every dollar spent on health care goes to chronic disease.
Over these same two hours, I’d estimate about a thousand employees were misinformed, harmed or harassed by wellness vendors, roughly equal numbers of employees got useless annual checkups, employers spent about $200-million on healthcare and 40 people died in hospitals from preventable errors. But I’m being such a Debbie Downer! I’m going home to read Why Nobody Believes the Numbers to remove myself from this alternative universe.
Enter the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO)
HERO’s Prevaricator-in-Chief, Paul Terry, is demonstrating his usual leadership abilities in this crisis, of course. After all, HERO is the wellness industry trade association and these three items — the NBER invalidating their product, employees hating their product, and a federal judge forbidding them to force employees to use their product — represent existential threats to his “pry, poke and prod” members.
Teddy Roosevelt said, “complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining.” It’s a quote that also reminds me why I’ve not thought of angry bloggers who target health promotion [vendors] as bullies. Though they relish trolling for bad apples, their scolding is toothless, more the stuff of chronic whiners.
I suspect he is talking about me here as the “chronic whiner” who is “scolding” them. Or perhaps he is referring to the “angry bloggers” at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Slate, or STATNews, since those “toothless” publications seem to be scolding wellness vendors more than I ever have. For instance, I’ve never called wellness vendors’ offering a “scam” or a “sham.” I simply quote these very stable wellness geniuses verbatim, as above or below, or last week.
Being quoted verbatim, not angry bloggers, is their worst nightmare. (One thing I would concede, though, is that “Paul Terry and the Angry Bloggers” would be a great name for a rock band.)
Yep, looks like the implosion of his industry all my fault. Otherwise, I’m not quite sure who is the “angry blogger” he is referring to, other than to note that Mr. Terry himself seems to blog a tad angrily himself, both above, and here…
Why I choose to ignore the blogger critics: We’re fortunate to work in a profession with a scant number of vociferous critics. My take is that there is one thing these few angry loners [Editor’s note: the complete “scant list” of the 220 “few angry loners” who have been “vociferous critics” can be found here] want more desperately than attention: that’s to be taken seriously. What they fail to comprehend is that as they’ve gotten ever more farfetched and vitriolic in search of the former, they’ve cinched their inability to attain the latter.
Baiting people with misinformation and offensive insults (but just a tad under highly offensive) is a pesky ploy that trolls hope will eventually land a bite that confers credibility where there is none. Even reading such drivel is a form of taking the bait; responding is swallowing it whole. Some say dishonesty should not go unchallenged and I respect their view; nevertheless, I’m convinced responding to bloggers who show disdain for our field is an utter waste of time. I’ve rarely been persuaded to respond to bloggers, and each time I did it affirmed my worry that, more than a waste, it’s counter-productive.
…and especially here, a seemingly incongruous decision to “act out” by someone who claims to be “choosing to ignore the blogger critics.”
Having read years of my “drivel” alongside Mr. Terry’s posting explaining why you shouldn’t “swallow this bait,” perhaps readers might opine here: which of us, exactly, is the “chronic whiner”?
Coincidentally, when I run live health-and-wellness trivia contests, the first of our 3 rules is: No Whining. Seems to me that he would have just violated it. Indeed the only rule HERO hasn’t violated so far is #3 below. Not that I want to put ideas in their head.
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’ve always maintained that, along with facts, integrity, math, data, employees and me, another thing the wellness industry has no appreciation of is 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