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Is your wellness vendor snookering you? There are certain facts that vendors are not exactly forthcoming about. This is because facts represent an existential threat to the “pry, poke and prod” industry. See how many facts you know — and how many they’ve suppressed — by taking this quiz.
You’ll earn more points, the closer you are. You don’t have to be exact — and honestly I’d worry about you if you got the exact answers to every question. I’d love you for it, but I’d still worry about you.
- Wellness vendors claim they can save significant money by reducing hospital admissions for diabetes and heart attacks, because those admissions are very common. How many admissions per 1000 covered lives does the average employer incur in a typical year?
The Health Enhancement Research Organization claims a certain savings figure for wellness PEPM. But that’s before taking into account vendor fees, extra doctor visits, tests, and prescriptions, compliance issues, employee time needed, overhead and basically anything else. In other words, what is the PEPM savings figure that at Bain & Company we used to refer to as “profit before cost”? Answer to the nearest one dollar. Hint: the answer is somewhere in this quiz.
To eventually save money someday, you first need to improve/reduce the risk profile of your population. According to eternal optimist and wellness promoter-in-chief Ron Goetzel, what is the maximum percent improvement in a risk profile that a company can expect after 2 to 3 years of wellness programming @$150 PEPY?
Speaking of Ron Goetzel, he said “thousands of wellness programs” fail to get good outcomes. What round number did he claim have succeeded?
And speaking of Ron Goetzel again, he finally admitted it was “hard” to force employees to change behavior. How many “very’s” did he put in front of the word “hard” in that admission?
The Wishful Thinking Factor, totally coincidentally abbreviated as WTF, is defined as: Total claimed cost reduction/total number of risk factors reduced. What is the average WTF for the last six Koop Award-winning programs, on average? (Hint: the real ratio of savings to risk reduction is about 0.05x, since even if savings does not lag risk reduction, a maximum of 5% of spending is wellness-sensitive.)
Speaking of risk reduction, employees in the most recent Koop Award-winning program, Wellsteps/Boise, originally tallied 5293 risk factors. Approximately how many risk factors did those same employees tally after participating, excluding dropouts?
In a participants-vs-non-participants study design, what percent of the perceived savings is due to the invalidity introduced by the study design itself in which unmotivated employees are used as the control for motivated employees, rather than health improvements attributable to the actual program itself, according to all four studies conducted on this topic, including three by wellness promoters?
If you use Interactive Health as a vendor hyperdiagnosing the stuffing out of your workforce, what is the annual percentage of employees that will likely be told they have “newly discovered conditions” that “require” a doctor’s intervention?
Of 1000+ wellness vendors, how many are validated by the Validation Institute?
- 2. Yes, only 2. All this wellness fuss is about 2 admissions per 1000 employees. Derivation: the roughly 150,000,000 employees and dependents covered by commercial insurance (mostly from employers) generate roughly 150,000 heart attacks and 120,000 diabetes events. See the HCUP database and enter “410” for heart attacks and 250 for diabetes admissions for the ICD9 for the most recent full year (2014). Scoring: Give yourself 1 point for guessing 4 to 10 and 2 points for guessing fewer than 4.
- One dollar. $0.99 PEPY. As is well-known, they tried to walk this figure back once they realized they had told the truth. Scoring: Give yourself 1 points for guessing $1.00, since the answer in the hint was on that very same line.
- 2%. That’s a few dollars PEPY in savings. (Looks like the HERO report was pretty close, its own protestations notwithstanding.) And you paid $450/employee over 3 years to achieve it. Actually it was 1% to 2%, but we asked for the maximum. Scoring: Give yourself 2 points for 2% or less, 1 point for 4% or less.
- Only 100. Besides Johnson & Johnson, Mr. Goetzel has never disclosed any of the other 99 without others making the observation that they self-invalidate according to their own data. Scoring: 2 points for 200 or fewer, 1 point for 400 or fewer.
- 4. In The Healthy Workplace Nudge, Rex Miller gets Ron Goetzel to admit that “changing behavior is very very very very hard.” Gosh, Ron, do you suppose this might explain why an employer population’s risk factors never noticeably decline? Scoring: 2 points for 4, 1 point for 3 or 5.
- Infinity. That’s because of the next question. The 21% risk factor increase for Wellsteps more than offset the trivial risk reductions achieved by the previous years’ winners. The actual WTFs for the previous years will be the subject of a future posting. Scoring: give yourself a point if you guessed that the WTF was 5 or higher. That would be 100 times the actual figure and still way below the wellness fantasy-league figure.
- 6397. Risk factors rose 21%. And yet somehow, even though the risk profile was deteriorating sharply, the risk profile of the population was also improving enough for Wellsteps to claim that healthcare costs declined 30%. 30% is enough to wipe out wellness-sensitive medical events for the entire Boise teacher population and about 30,000 of their closest friends. (Wellsteps originally admitted that costs increased, but took that slide down when it occurred to them that telling the truth would be inconsistent with their marketing strategy.) Scoring: 1 points for 5500 to 6000 or 6600 to 7000, 2 points for 6001 to 6599.
- 100%. It turns out that the participant-vs-non-participant study design is responsible for all the perceived savings that wellness vendors claim for programs. The New York Times just explained how, in the landmark University of Illinois study, both the “gold standard” RCT methodology and the invalid par-vs-non-par methodology were used and had completely different results. This also happened three other times (summarized here) — with Newtopia, Health Fitness Corporation, and a study done by the chairperson of the Koop Committee showing how feeding diabetics more carbs would reduce their costs by improving their health. Literally, 4 studies — all of which were run by people trying to show savings — showed exactly the same thing. Scoring: all or nothing — 1 points for 100%.
- 45%. This is because running 40 inappropriate tests on every employee makes it inevitable that at least 1 or 2 of those tests reveal a false positive. Scoring: Give yourself 2 points for guessing between 40% and 50%, 1 point for 30% to 39% or 51% to 60%.
- Four. All four are honest and make modest claims they can defend or valid contractual representations. AND, they actually screen according to guidelines! (In the wellness industry, doing something appropriate merits an exclamation point.) They are: It Starts With Me, Splashlight, Sustainable Health Index, and US Preventive Medicine. That’s <1% of all wellness vendors. Scoring: give yourself 1 points for 8 or fewer.
0-2 points. Has your wellness vendor sold you a bridge too?
3-5 points: Your wellness vendor is blocking your internet connection
6-9 points: Nice work!
>9 points: Send your fifth-grade math teacher a thank-you note for doing a better job than the wellness vendors’ teachers did.
You have to read this all the way through because, in breaking with long-established precedent (which needless to say is recounted in loving detail), in 2017 the Koop Award Committee — wait for it — did the right thing.
In 2017, 3 companies applied for a Koop Award. This is down from a peak of 21, and represents the belated recognition on the part of wellness vendors that it simply isn’t mathematically possible to satisfy the requirement of saving money. Thankfully, one of the best attributes of math is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.
Many an employer has won an award, only to learn later — via the media — that their vendor had fabricated the savings. This litany might explain the slight reticence of vendors to shine a light on their own programs:
- Wellsteps: “Top Wellness Award Goes to Workplace Where Many Health Measures Got Worse,” STATNews
- McKesson: “Wellness ROI Comes under Fire,” Employee Benefit News
- Health Fitness Corporation:”Nebraska’s Acclaimed Wellness Program Under Fire,” Omaha World-Herald
An example of what transpires when employers find out they’ve been snookered would be McKesson. If the name “McKesson” sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw 60 Minutes the other night explaining how drug distributors including McKesson facilitated the opioid crisis.
The good news is, illegally trafficking in opioids doesn’t disqualify a company from winning a wellness award. Is this a great country or what?
Once McKesson got wind that Employee Benefit News was going to publish an expose on how they got snookered, they called in a consultant, not to investigate how they got snookered but rather to mount a coverup. The consultant “clarified” to Employee Benefit News — in lay terms that any fifth-grader could understand — how, among other things, employees’ weight could go down and up at the same time:
“Health indicators in 2013 and 2014 were adjusted in the analysis, while several sensitivity analyses of the ‘inter-individual’ impact that used a matching approach confirmed the results.”
Silly me! Of course weight can go up and down at the same time!
McKesson was not exactly copacetic about this coverage. Here is the reaction of McKesson’s wellness program champion to my analysis, as reported to me:
“I wish you could have been in the room when I questioned the architect of that whole program. I’ve never unintentionally pissed anyone off that much. Red faced and table pounding, it was a moment! He retired 3 days later. Coincidence?”
Next, consider last year’s award, bestowed upon their Wellsteps buddies. Wellsteps (motto: “It’s fun to get fat; it’s fun to be lazy”) is the kind of company that gives cronyism a bad name…but they were overdue for the award, never having won one despite their years of service on the Awards Committee.
Sure, Wellsteps harmed employees, but harming employees has never been a deal-killer for a wellness award. Ron Goetzel observed that employees en masse becoming sicker — both objectively and according to their own self-assessment — only meant that the program did not “[go] exactly right.” By that logic, the Vietnam War did not go exactly right either.
The 2017 Awards
No one won in 2017. The Committee deserves great credit for getting it right this year, finally albeit belatedly acknowledging that it is indeed impossible to get a positive ROI by screening the stuffing out of your employees. So kudos to them!
Instead, they gave “honorable mentions” to the three applicants: Delta Airlines, IDEXX Labs, and Pepsico. I’m sure all three deserved their —
Whoa! In the immortal words of the great philosopher Meat Loaf, stop right there! Come again? Pepsico? That Pepsico?
If one excludes the total debacles at Penn State, Nebraska and Boise — Pepsico runs the single most-pilloried wellness program in history. It was the subject of a Health Affairs article showing massive losses on its wellness program. These losses, massive as they appeared, were likely understated. I was the peer reviewer, and I passed it rather than make the author do more work, because I thought it was more important to get the word out there promptly than to make him recount every single stupid thing they did.
Pepsi’s Latest Innovation
In all fairness to Pepsico, maybe they do deserve at least a “most improved” award, because now you can buy Pepsi made with real sugar. This is a good thing, according to their announcement, even if the people who run their wellness program disagree. One can only imagine what a beleaguered Pepsico employee’s Outlook calendar looks like:
Perhaps McKesson’s consultant could explain this to us.
Delta and IDEXX
I can’t really comment on the other two because none of the four flight attendants I talked to at Delta had any familiarity with their program beyond the basics (“Yeah, I think if you fill out a form and go to the doctor, you get a discount on insurance or something like that”), while IDEXX doesn’t use vendors connected with the Awards Committee and doesn’t make up savings. To bestow an outright win in that situation would go against all precedent, so IDEXX should be happy with their honorable mention.
Theirs is a fitness-based program that deserves a closer look, as a model for what a wellness program should look like. I hope to do that someday.
And perhaps IDEXX is a harbinger of things to come, where wellness is done for employees and not to them, wellness vendors don’t lie about savings, and they endorse and agree to adhere to the Employee Health and Wellness Code of Conduct.
Otherwise, for the wellness industry, there might be trouble on the horizon.
Having covered the also-rans last week, here are the first runners-up, as we inch ever closer to the coveted top spot. (To read the original postings, click on the numbered headers.)
Today we are highlighting more people and organizations who’ve made the wellness industry what it is. Wednesday we will complete the listing of the Stars of Wellness, the people and organizations who are making the industry what it should be.
Interactive Health conducted what may be the head-scratchingest screen in wellness industry, a difficult feat given all the competition. For starters, they tested me for calf tightness. It turns out my calves are tight–and right on-site they loosened them. I could feel my productivity soaring…until the left one went into spasm that night and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Still, I can see their point — loose calves are a useful trait for many common jobs.
Next, Interactive Health shattered the record, previously shared by Total Wellness and Star Wellness, for most USPSTF non-recommended blood tests. I don’t know what half these things are, which means neither does Interactive Health.
Where would a Deplorables Greatest Hits List be without the Koop Award Committee?
Every year, like clockwork, the industry’s biggest liars select the industry’s biggest lies. 2016 started with last year’s winning program, McKesson’s, being exposed as a joke in Employee Benefit News, and ended with this year’s winner, Wellsteps, being exposed as a joke in STATNews.
When bestowing this year’s award to their fellow Committee member, Wellsteps, they didn’t even pretend not to lie. And what lies they were! Not just regular-sized lies. Not even supersized lies. We’re talking lies that would make a thesaurus-writer blush.
To put their lies in perspective, I may not even know you, but if a Koop Committee member told me the sky was blue, and you told me the sky was green, I’d at least go look out the window.
PS Not everyone on the Committee is a liar. One person is quite honest and can’t believe what goes on every year. I don’t want to name my source because in Koop-land, honesty is grounds for termination. As is getting validation. Or adopting the Code of Conduct. Basically ethical behavior is off-limits. An executive of one group, Altarum, published a blog critical of wellness and <poof> the Committee disappeared them.
Michael O’Donnell seems to crave my attention. When he managed to go three whole months without being featured in a TSW posting, he came up with these irresistible nuggets:
- “Wellness is indeed the best thing since sliced bread, up there with vaccines, sanitation and antibiotics.”
- “[Wellness] can prevent 80% of all diseases.”
- “The ROI from wellness is very strong.”
- “Workplace health promotion may play a critical role in preserving civilization as we know it.”
If nothing else, Mr. O’Donnell presents the best argument for requiring educational standards, or at least a GED, in this field — by demonstrating his total lack of understanding not just of wellness, but also of vaccines, sanitation, antibiotics, percentages, diseases, ROIs, and preserving civilization as we know it.
Oh, yes, and multiplication as well. His article on how to increase productivity with wellness used an example demonstrating a productivity decrease. In 2016, he also went on an anti-employee jihad that should be read in its entirety. (Translation: some of my best work…) Highlights:
- Prospective new hires should be subjected to an intrusive physical exam, and hired only if they are in good shape. OK, not every single prospective new hire — only those applying for “blue collar jobs or jobs that require excessive walking, standing, or even sitting.” Hence he would waive the physical exam requirement for mattress-tester, prostitute, or Koop Committee member–because those jobs require only excessive lying.
- He would “set the standard for BMI at the level where medical costs are lowest.” Since people with very low BMIs incur higher costs than people with middling BMIs, Mr. O’Donnell would fine not only people who weigh more than his ideal, but also employees with anorexia.
If employees didn’t already have an eating disorder, what better way of giving them one — and hence extracting more penalties from them — than to levy fines based on their weight? Employees above his ideal weight would pay per pound, sort of like if they were ordering lobster or mailing packages.
These three characters — naturally also on the Koop Committee — managed to pile more lies, sardine-like, into a single page than anyone else in this industry, in the “poison pen” about me they circulated to the media.
A good starting question would be, why on earth would anyone think that they can send a “confidential” letter to the media? The media are in the business of disseminating information. You see, that’s why they call them “the media.” Am I going too fast for you, Mr. Goetzel?
The funny thing about these Einsteins? Their defense to my observation that their very own numbers show wellness loses money was that their very own numbers were made up. Imagine being so dishonest that the way you defend yourselves is by claiming you fabricated your own report.
That’s not even the punchline. It turns out that this allegedly fabricated report is in truth an actual non-fabricated report. So, in the immortal words of the great philosopher LL Cool J, they lied about the lies that they lied about.
How did I learn this? That will be the subject of a post early year.
Watch this space…soon we will be naming the industry’s #1 Deplorable of 2016.
When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.
Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana has “endorsed” a confederacy of 25 wellness vendors, including his own company, Wellsteps. Alas, in the world of the Welligentsia, in which an increasing number of employers reside, an endorsement from Mr. Aldana earns about as many points in a vendor selection process as neat handwriting.
There are usually not enough hours in a week to both do my Day Job running a fast-growing company (Quizzify, which plenty of thought leaders have endorsed, so they don’t have to endorse themselves), and also play wellness-meets-whack-a-mole with the Ignorati. Fortunately, this week does have enough hours, thanks to the time change. (The wellness industry is lucky that “falling back” is not a regular occurrence.)
I haven’t heard of many members of this confederacy, but I’ve heard more than enough about the ones below. Each link takes you to our own “endorsements.”
Keas Meets Lake Wobegon: All Employees Are Above Average (in Stress). This is the best argument for requiring that wellness vendors attain a GED.
Provant: “In the Belly of the Beast” A nine-part series that one line can’t do justice to. We would simply note that you do not have to drink eight glasses of water a day. Indeed, you probably shouldn’t if you expect to get anything else done.
Staywell’s Wellness Program for British Petroleum is Spewing Invalidity. It wasn’t just that their savings claim was mathematically impossible. That’s just the threshold for wellness savings claims. Staywell also somehow saved BP 100x as much as Staywell’s own website says is possible. And because they have a “special relationship” with Mercer (meaning they pay them), Mercer “validated” this fiction for BP, at BP’s expense…
Staywell, Mercer, and British Petroleum Meet Groundhog Day. They won a Koop Award. Since Staywell and Mercer are both on the Koop Committee and their results are completely invalid and they are obviously lying, they satisfy all the award criteria.
Total Wellness’s Total Package of Totally Inappropriate Tests. They could lose their license for subjecting employees to this panoply of US Preventive Services Task Force D-rated quackery, except that in wellness the only license you need is a license to steal from unsuspecting HR directors. This leads to…
…Total Wellness: The Best Argument for Regulating the Wellness Industry. Total Wellness isn’t about to lose this Race to the Bottom without a fight. Watch as they try to out-stupid Star Wellness in their quest for that prize.
US Corporate Wellness Saves Money on People Who Don’t Cost Money. We call this Seinfeld-meets-wellness, because it’s about nothing: even if you have absolutely no risk factors, these Einsteins will still save you a fortune. And someone should also tell them you can’t reduce a number by more than 100% no matter how hard you try.
Vitality’s Glass House: Their Own Program Fails Their Own Employees. These people might have more luck selling you a crash-dieting program if they could get their own employees to lose weight.
Wellness Corporate Solutions Gives Us a Dose of Much-Needed Criticism. We don’t want to spoil the punchline.
And that brings us to Wellsteps itself, which earns its “endorsement” from its own CEO by making so many appearances on this list that there is barely enough room for the rest of the confederacy. If you only have time for the Executive Summary, this is the one to read. But squeezing it all into one place requires sacrificing the laugh lines, and if there is one thing Wellsteps excels at, it’s providing laugh lines.
Wellsteps ROI Calculator Doesn’t Calculate an ROI…and That’s the Good News. Watch what happens when Wellsteps meets Fischer-Price. No matter what variables you enter in this model, you get the same result.
Wellsteps Stumbles Onward: Costs Go Up and Down at the Same Time. This isn’t possible even using wellness arithmetic. Eventually Wellsteps solved this problem by simply deleting one of the slides. But because we long ago learned that doctoring/suppressing data is one of the wellness industry’s signature moves, we took a screenshot before we did our expose.
Prediction: Wellsteps Wins Koop Award. In 2015, I went out on a limb to make this prediction, noting Wellsteps’ perfect Koop Award storm of invalidity, incompetence, and cronyism.
Wellsteps: “It’s Fun to Get Fat. It’s Fun to Be Lazy.” This one was penned by Dr. Aldana’s waterboy, Troy Adams, who apparently during his self-proclaimed “11 years of college” never learned that “fat” and “lazy” aren’t synonyms. Paraphrasing the immortal words of the great philosopher Bluto Blutarski, 11 years of college down the drain.
Does Wellsteps Understand Wellness? They are demonizing even the slightest consumption of alcohol, among many other misunderstandings. Shame on me for enjoying a glass of wine on a Saturday night!
The Back Story of the Scathing STATNews Smackdown of Wellsteps and the Koop Committee. This one leads to several other links.
The Koop Committee Raises Lying to an Art Form. It turns out Steve Aldana is not stupid: he apparently has heard of regression to the mean, but just pretended he hadn’t so he could take credit for it with the Boise Schools, who were not familiar with the concept.
if Wellsteps Isn’t Lying, I’ll Pay Them $1 Million but let’s just say I’m not taking out a second mortgage just yet.
An Honorable Mention goes to another vendor on this list, in the form of the Don Draper Award, for this advertising gem, aimed at ensuring that even the stupidest member of the Ignorati, and/or HERO Board members, can catch their name:
To quote the immortal words of the great philosopher Rick Perry, even a stopped clock is right once a day.* And, yes, on that Wellsteps list there is one standout vendor, US Preventive Medicine. It has validation from the Validation Institute. As you read their validation, note that while they show an enviable reduction in wellness-sensitive medical events, they don’t claim an ROI. This is testament to the integrity of both USPM and the Validation Institute.
*If you are a regular reader and didn’t find this quote amusing, read it again. If you are a wellness vendor, find a smart person to explain it to you.
Background: Finally, the “Great Debate” tape has been released by the Population Health Alliance (PHA). One could imagine that there was pressure to squelch it, but honestly I don’t think so. True, the major tactic of Mr. Goetzel and his cronies is to send “secret” defamatory letters to the media urging them not to publish my material. (How’d that work out for ya, Ron?) and in general try to squelch my exposes. But I suspect the explanation for this delay was more that there were changes of leadership at PHA, and they needed to address other priorities. Sorry I can’t be more conspiratorial about this. I do like a good conspiracy, but at some point one has to concede that, like it or not, there is no evidence of a second gunman on the grassy knoll.
I don’t need to blame a conspiracy or a faulty mic or anything else, because I won this “Great Debate,” held November 2 in Washington, DC, at the 2015 Population Health Alliance conference. How do you know I won (besides this article in Employee Benefit News)? Because I’m the one publicizing the recording.
Today’s installment is Ron Goetzel’s opening remarks. Listen hard to see if you can hear him cite any examples to back up his thesis that I am inaccurate and, among other things, “bad for society.” If you hear any, let me know. Your timer for this tape should coincide with the minute-marks corresponding to the annotations below. I encourage you not to just look at the annotations but listen to the tape itself.
Before we start, a special shout-out to Fred Goldstein, who pulled this all together and moderated. He did a great job.
Quoting the compliments about him in my award-winning book Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, earns him a point for now…but stay tuned as we get further into the debate as the plot thickens. One irony: I am proud of my book, which, though written as a humor book, is used as a textbook in at least 5 graduate-level courses on population health. Ron also (co)authored a wellness guidebook…but we’ll hear later that he disavowed it after I observed that none of the numbers added up.
However, for the time being, he would win a point, quoting my book as saying he was one of two credible researchers in the field.
Ron is correct that I offered $1000 to anyone who could convince him to debate me, and deftly turns that into a solicitation for his Koop Committee. Since I wouldn’t want to be associated with characters who give out awards for defrauding states and who reward obviously falsified savings claims and vendors that harm employees, I did not take him up on that offer. Still, great debating technique. He’s on a roll.
Ron accuses me of spreading rumors and false and misleading information that is “harmful to society.” Starting a theme that will continue throughout the debate and into his “poison pen” media missive, he offers no examples. Then, he immediately concedes that I am right a lot of the time. This will be another theme–admitting my stuff is right. He did the same thing in that letter to the media. Lots of accusations of inaccuracy, but not a single example offered.
My ideas are “convoluted and just plain wrong…and harmful to you, me and all of society.” (Once again, no examples.) Then a brief diatribe on how my ideas harm people. (This is ironic given the number of wellness companies that do actually harm people.) Once again, no examples are given.
The first of many walk-backs by Ron. While I consistently maintain that “pry, poke and prod” programs (wellness done to employees instead of for them) are pure alchemy, Ron repeatedly concedes that many programs don’t work. His view is that “good programs work” though there are a lot of “bad/lousy/awful” programs that “stink.” This was, once again, a brilliant debating tactical retreat, making it impossible for me to cite the 50 or so vendors whose programs have been eviscerated on this site. He can just excuse the many failures of wellness — and he will on multiple occasions during this debate — “oh, well, that’s just a bad/lousy program.”
It was also a brilliant debating technique to avoid mentioning his most recent debacle, Graco, because I would have immediately invalidated it. He is also lucky this debate was held in 2015, and not 2016, after the scathing expose of the Koop – Wellsteps scandal, by award-winning journalist Sharon Begley in STATNews.
He knows how to debate. If he had even a single fact on his side, I’d be toast!
Once again, yet another unsupported attack: I “make erroneous, outlandish claims.” Um, where? All my claims are on this very site. No one has challenged any of them, ever. (We have corrected and admitted a few mistakes, this apology to HERO being my favorite.) In general, he and his Koop Committee cronies are the ones making the erroneous, outlandish claims. I merely show them how do simple arithmetic correctly.
Ron “applauds” me for going after “cheaters” who make “bombastic claims especially about ROI.” He is turning the lemon of the wellness industry and my ability to invalidate it into lemonade, by throwing “cheaters” — meaning many of close his colleagues, all detailed on this site — under the bus. [All the cheaters, that is, except his friends that he gives awards to, like Wellsteps.]
He concludes by accusing me of “bombastic opinions, sarcasm, and hyperbole.” (Ron: my literary style is called irony, not sarcasm. Irony is, to use a recent example, your Vitality friends saying companies should be required to make their employees do wellness when they themselves admit they can’t even make wellness work on their own employees. Or that your friend Steve Aldana’s Wellsteps ROI model, besides being made up, doesn’t actually calculate an ROI.)
Once again, no examples are offered. Clearly if he had even a single example, having attacked me three times, he would have offered it.
Where’s the Beef?
In 7 minutes, he cited zero examples to back up his assertions and accusations, but conceded three important points — that I am right sometimes, that many programs don’t work, and that he “applauds me” for calling out cheaters.
So I’m already ahead even before I speak.
Some of you might remember the closing credits of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Due to copyright restrictions, we can display only a “fair use” snippet. (“Fair use” means you could use one question from Quizzify as an example without special permission as long as you cite the source, but if you tried to copy the whole thing, we’d get elected president, hire a special prosecutor, and throw you in jail.)
Rocky asks: “You got the credits, Bullwinkle?”
Bullwinkle replies: “All on this itty-bitty card…oops” and then it folds out:
(Source: Jay Ward Productions.)
So what does this have to do with wellness, besides nothing?
Simple –I just consolidated all the lies and harms of the Wellsteps/Koop Award into one itty-bitty posting for the American Journal of Managed Care blog. And it also folds out — with links to all the other “smoking guns” in this scandal. If you just want to forward one article around, that’s the one.
Kudos to American Journal of Managed Care for going where Health Affairs fears to tread, by posting the entire, unbowdlerized expose in all its sordid glory. Indeed one would think the latter publication would show some contrition for having started this “pry, poke and prod” mess, by publishing the original Baicker propaganda — with no disclosure of the authors’ conflicts of interest or funding sources…and apparently also no peer review. This thing has been cited 250 times. And that was after it was shown to have been made up. It has 549 citations in total.
Sadly, in addition to not being subject to any other regulations, wellness is not subject to Pottery Barn Rules. Health Affairs created this mess, but they don’t need to pay for it. Quite the contrary, the Health Affairs “impact factor” has probably been boosted more by this article’s 549 citations than almost any other article they’ve ever published. And guess who has to clean up after them?
(Source–you guessed it–Jay Ward productions. These are the closing credits to Mr. Peabody.)
Kudos also, by the way, to the perpetrators of the Wellsteps fraud — Steve Aldana, Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner. They have the good sense not to take my bait by actually attempting to rebut. The one time they did, in Sharon Begley’s article, their “rebuttal” took the form of basically admitting they had made the whole thing up.
Abe Lincoln seems to be in the news a lot this week, and he put it best: “Better to be thought a fool and say nothing than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Words the Wellness Ignorati should live by. You’d think they would have learned that by now.
If Wellsteps and the Koop Committee can show they aren’t lying, they can collect the $1-million reward
Those of you with long memories may recall our standing offer of a $1-million reward to anyone who can show that the wellness industry has broken even during this century. You need a long memory because no one ever claimed the reward. For all the bluster of Ron Goetzel and his cronies, apparently none of them actually believe what they say…or they would be $1-million richer.
The offer is legally binding. There are clear rules. There is an entry fee, but it is refundable to the claimant if they win.
We would now extend that offer specifically to Wellsteps and/or the Koop Award Committee, and we’ll throw in HERO too, since it’s all the same inbred crowd. All they have to show is what they have already claimed: that Wellsteps made Boise School District employees so much healthier — perhaps by reciting their mantra that “it’s fun to get fat and it’s fun to be lazy” — that the School District could, as a direct result of this enhanced employee health, reduce their healthcare benefit spending by roughly one-third after three years.
To make it extra easy for the these people, I’ll relax the requirements:
- They can submit the existing “This Is How You Win a Koop Award” self-congratulatory paean. That means both that they don’t have to do any extra work (besides adding to up 20 links at their option, as the rules allow), and that the word limit on the reward application is waived to accommodate the size of that posting.
- Any or all Koop Committee members can participate with you in the oral arguments, but I myself am not allowed to bring a second. This means they can gang up on me, by crowdsourcing their IQs.
And of course they already know what arguments I am going to make because I posted them. That’s like having the debate questions in advance.
They would have to file the entry fee, or formally request a month’s extension, by November 1. The only reason for the deadline is that when they ignore this offer, as they inevitably will, I can start saying they are admitting they’re lying as early as November 2.
As with the regular award, I am perfectly happy to offer it the other way around, where I pay the entry fee, and I have to prove they’re lying, as opposed to them proving they are telling the truth. That way they can’t say the game is rigged, since I’m willing to play either hand.
Since the Koop Committee members are all such civic-minded citizens, they need not personally collect the windfall if they win. I am perfectly willing to — indeed, would prefer to — donate a million dollars to the Boise School District, either as an unrestricted gift or to set up a fund to update, enhance, and increase employee (and student) access to their fitness facilities and equipment.
Surely, Mr. Aldana and Mr. Goetzel, if you truly care about the health and well-being of those employees, you will make the small effort required to secure this million-dollar contribution on their behalf.
And, Mr. Aldana, please don’t pretend you aren’t applying for the award because you are unaware of my work. For instance, you view my Linkedin profile with a regularity roughly halfway between obsessive and man-crush.*
*As recently as…
If you were at the HERO conference, you witnessed a surreal experience. Executives from Johns Hopkins, Mercer, United Healthcare and elsewhere willing to risk their jobs by perpetuating what has now been exposed as a bald-faced, presidential candidate-level lie: that Wellsteps deserves an award for a program allegedly benefiting Boise teachers so dramatically that costs fell by a third. They will not mention the article in STATNews that came out yesterday showing that school district employee health deteriorated.
You read the article, so you know they are lying. And they know you know they are lying. And yet the whole thing just continues as though it is somehow all OK because no one is admitting it publicly.
Here is some more detail on the lies in question.
Sharon Begley’s article Wellness Award Goes to Workplace Where Many Health Indicators Got Worse does not lose anything in the re-reading. Quite the contrary, almost every quote in it is either a lie, or exposes the Wellsteps application as a lie. In each case, Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana, Johns Hopkins’ Ron Goetzel, United Health Care’s Seth Serxner, and all the other committee members know it’s a lie, because of the aforementioned article.
“Lie” might seem like a harsh term, but the alternative is to assume that Ron and his cronies have absolutely no idea how to read an outcomes report, even though I have already showed them how to read this report in particular.
True, one could argue that Ron has been known to use the “dumb and dumber defense” when giving his friends their awards, but in this case he can’t pretend he doesn’t know any better because he was quoted in the article. Another argument that these are lies: no one — not even a member of the Koop Committee — can possibly be this stupid accidentally.
Let’s go lie by lie. Let’s start with the last quote from Ron “the Pretzel” Goetzel, because it sets the stage for the others. He got his moniker because he has a way of twisting and turning words to make himself sound like he isn’t lying. In this case, he said if “an application said everything went exactly right,” it would certainly “raise eyebrows” on the Committee.
“Went exactly right”??? Ron, isn’t the entire point of wellness to make employees healthier? So if a program makes employees unhealthier, we say it didn’t go “exactly right”?
Using this definition, here are a few other things that did not “go exactly right”: New Coke, Yugos, the 1962 Mets, Vietnam, subprime loans, Yahoo, and the 2016 presidential nominating process. And for that matter, Begley’s article points out that McKesson’s 2015 award also wasn’t “exactly right,” in that the program didn’t do anything and the data self-contradicted. It’s not just McKesson. I have been tracking these Koop Award-winners for years, and they all self-invalidate. Each is more hilariously not “exactly right” than the other.
Yessirree, if there is one thing that shouldn’t keep Koop Committee members up at night, it’s the fear that one of their award applications might be exactly right. So the good news is that no Committee member has to worry about contracting an acute case of over-raised eyebrows.
Another lie exposed: It turns out the Koop Estate licenses the name to this cabal in order to make money, just like Dr. Koop licensed his name to make videotapes. The award is now admitted to be “industry sponsored.” This is the first time this provenance has been disclosed in print. It is basically a marketing scheme for the committee members and sponsors. They had claimed to be a “private-public” organization. That Orwellian Pretzel-speak is a lot different from being admittedly industry sponsored.
Next, Dr. James Fries — whose major wellness expert credential is writing an article finding massive population-wide savings against a phony control group by getting a few diabetics to eat less fat — called this “an exemplary program” that “showed improvements in health behavior” leading to cost reduction. Yes, a few self-reported behaviors improved. We suspect the Boise teachers lied, because they clearly lied when they self-reported their smoking (only 2.5% admitted it) and drinking (only 20%).
But let’s assume they didn’t lie–meaning somehow they are different from everyone else when they complete workplace health assessments. Exercising three more minutes a day and eating 0.11 more fruits and vegetables/day cannot reduce health care costs at all, let alone by a third, especially when the employees became unhealthier overall.
This statement would therefore qualify as a mistake, assuming Dr. Fries is not bright enough to already realize it is wrong. If Dr Fries doesn’t retract it now that he knows it’s wrong, it becomes a lie.
That brings us to Steve Aldana. He has been caught lying many times, including this example where he accidentally told the truth before retracting it. (He and his friends burn a lot of time trying to explain away instances in which have to explain why they accidentally told the truth but didn’t really mean it.)
His biggest lie is his discussion of regression to the mean. Compare his quote to his application. First, the quote, which shows he is actually familiar with the concept:
“In just one year, many employees will move from one [risk] group to the other,” he explained, “even though they did not participate in any wellness programs or any intervention whatsoever.” That movement, he continued, “reflects changes in health risks that occur naturally,” making it possible that some high-risk people become low risk “even though your program didn’t do anything.”
Contrast that to his application, in which he pretends he has never heard of regression to the mean, and instead attributes the “dramatic improvements” in the highest-risk Boise employees to the “program impact”:
He also contributed my favorite line of the article: even “one more bite of a banana” can make a difference in people’s health. This is true, of course, for the segment of the population that is starving to death. Otherwise, how dumb is this claim? Let’s just say that if a college taught him this, it could lose its accreditation.
And that brings us to his biggest lie of all: He says I didn’t understand the program benefits because I didn’t read the data. I did, of course. I even actually added up the datapoints, which no one on the Koop Committee did. I’ll give Committee members the benefit of the doubt and assume they failed to add the datapoints not because they didn’t want to expose the truth that Boise employees got worse in their friend’s program, but because calculators are not yet available in their cave.
Adding the data would have revealed to them — as it did to me — that they harmed employees. 6397 biometric indicators deteriorated, while only 5293 improved. This conclusion shared by both Ms. Begley and the Boise consultant, Kellie Wirth, who helped set up the program. Apparently, the law of averages caught up with the perpetrators of this Boise scheme, because Kellie Wirth is honest. She calls the biometric results “very disappointing” and says my concerns “are valid.”
The biggest lie of all: that these extra banana bites and trivial improvements in self-reported health behaviors — combined with statistically significant deteriorations in self-rated health and risk scores — could have any effect, let alone an effect of mind-boggling magnitude, on overall spending:
Funny thing, Ron Goetzel insists that “most programs fail” because they aren’t done right, and that getting to a 1-to-1 ROI is a heroic accomplishment, only achievable when employee health is improved:
And yet when it comes to giving his friends awards, failed programs harming employees but generating massive phony ROIs don’t seem to bother him at all. Let’s see him Pretzel his way out of this one.
One thing vendors love to do is play blame-the-victim. The Pretzel pioneered this approach by saying he had “absolutely nothing to do with Penn State,” when in fact he was in the room when they defended their program to the media.
Seth Serxner stood up, on camera, and basically declared United Health Care/Optum hates it when employees spend too much money on their screening programs, and typically begs to do less. United Healthcare complained that I was making them look bad, but then couldn’t produce a single name of a single employer who would admit to deciding to spend more money for the express purpose of screening inappropriately.
And now here comes Steve Aldana, blaming the Boise school administrators for insisting on throwing taxpayer money away and harming their employees, by flouting US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines. My suspicion is that their Boise customers have an alternative view, but — despite the presumably obvious pride they must be taking in this award — they are refusing to comment on it. One can only imagine the conversations taking place in Boise right now…and this is before the Idaho Statesman gets hold of this debacle.
And Ron wonders why the number of applications for the Koop Award was down by two-thirds this year…which brings us to yet another lie told by Mr. Goetzel in this article. He attributes the decline to the following:
the application process, including the requirement that wellness programs submit statistics and rigorous data analysis, has become so strict that fewer programs want to go through the process.
However, if you actually look at the application form, it is exactly the same now as it has been every year this century. And indeed the data submitted, if anything, was more comprehensive then. For instance, the 2000 winner, Fannie Mae, clearly documented all the prostate, pulmonary function and other USPSTF D-rated tests they forced employees to submit to.
Last week we asked if you were smarter than a wellness vendor. (SPOILER ALERT: you are — assuming you can read this posting without moving your lips.) I suggested taking the Interactive Health IQ test, just to be sure.
Now, see if you are smarter than a Koop Committee member. They all reviewed this Wellsteps application and decided it was award-worthy.*
Do you agree that this application is award-worthy? If not, see how many self-invalidators you can find. I don’t mean “challenges” to the data. I mean self-immolations. Remember the mantra: “In wellness you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
After you’ve finished, review the answers to see what you got right and what you missed. You may have read it before since it’s been getting lots of views for six weeks, but I’ve added several observations since the original posting.
You may even find things I missed, so let me know. The reason is that — aside from possibly the first Sunday in November — there aren’t enough hours in a day to identify everything that Koop Committee members “overlook” in their friends’ applications.
If this type of analysis interests you, I might recommend applying for Critical Outcomes Report Analysis certification. This program is run by the Validation Institute, the gold standard in all things analytical regarding population health and employee health. (Disclosure: while I am not an employee, they occasionally subcontract to me.)
There is nothing highly technical in the answer posting. In order to make it possible for a Koop Committee member to understand and hence decide to rescind the award, I used only fifth-grade math, simple declarative sentences, short words, and lots of pictures.
*Speaking of disclosures that don’t appear in the award application, the Wellsteps CEO also served on the awards committee itself until very recently. Indeed, until so very recently that he still says he is on it.
To our new readers, while 2016 marked the first instance in which a Koop Award was ever bestowed upon a company that harmed employees, 2016 wasn’t the first Koop Award ever to go to a company whose own data showed they fabricated results. Below is a history of one of the Koop Award’s Greatest Hits.
For those of you who haven’t been following the saga of the Nebraska state employee wellness program, here is a crash course, aka “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Nebraska State Wellness Program.” If you have been following it, you can skip to the end for the latest installment, Mr. Goetzel’s cover-up of his cover-up.
By way of background, this program is called “wellnessoptions” (imagine e.e. cummings-meets-poking employees with needles-meets-a sticky spacebar). They used to say the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire. Likewise, wellnessoptions is neither optional, if you want a decent deal on healthcare, nor wellness. Instead of wellness, it features a hyperdiagnostic anti-employee jihad in which Health Fitness Corporation (HFC) diagnoses employees but does nothing about the diagnosis except take credit for it.
TIMELINE — PART ONE: HFC’S TROUSERS COMBUSTED
September 24, 2012, 2:00 PM
I read Health Fitness Corporation announcement that its customer, the state of Nebraska, won Ron Goetzel’s C. Everett Koop Award for program excellence.
September 24, 2012, 2:01 PM
I recognize that the cancer outcomes were obviously made up. Until then, I hadn’t been following the Koop award closely enough to realize that making up outcomes was apparently one of the award criteria, as I later came to learn.
I read the full write-up on the program and realize that not only were most of the other outcomes made up, but they had actually lied about saving the lives of cancer victims. If you screen a few thousand people for colon cancer, you don’t find 514 cases of cancer, and you certainly don’t save their lives, as HFC was claiming. And you absolutely don’t save money, as they were also claiming. All this is even more true when you waive age-related guidelines and let anyone get screened, and encourage overscreening by sending out 140,000 letters to state employees graced with the picture of a beautiful young model way too young to be getting a colonoscopy.
How this invalid nonsense ever got by all the eagle-eyed Koop Committee members would be a mystery, except that HFC is a sponsor of the Koop Committee.
I review the entire application and all the marketing materials. It becomes obvious that the entire thing was made up, not just the cancer part. They claimed to save $4.2 million because 161 of their roughly 6000 participants reduced a risk factor.
The math is quite self-evident. Suppose you doubled the number of participants who reduced risks to 312. It stands to reason that you could save $8.4-million. Double it again to 624 and you save $16.8.
Now double it one more time. If 1,248 people out of those 6000 reduced one single risk factor, you’d save $31.6-million, which is about equal to the entire spending for all 6000 participants. And of course most medical spending has nothing to do with identifying previously unrecognized risk factors, so this would be quite a feat. (Do you even know anyone under 65 who had a heart attack that could have been avoided by one more workplace screening?)
I later learn that all the Koop Award-winning program outcomes are made up, using exactly the same math.
November 2012 to June 2013
I try to contact the authorities, like Roger Wilson, who allegedly runs this program for the state, but no one seems to care. The rule of thumb in the wellness industry is that what you say counts. What you do is pretty irrelevant.
June 20, 2013
Breakthrough: The Wall Street Journal editors decide that I am correct, and that the outcomes were made up. Vik and I are allowed to publish this on their op-ed page.
July 14, 2013
Breakthrough again: Another very well-read blogger professes shock-and-awe that any vendor could lie so blatantly and apparently get away with it.
July 15, 2013
Breakthrough yet again: Ace reporter Martha Stoddard of the Omaha World Herald gets Dennis Richling of Health Fitness Corporation to admit that the outcomes — at least the “life-saving catches” of “early stage cancer” outcomes — were indeed made up. Richling tries to spin his gaffe by calling the difference between “life-saving catches of early-stage cancer” and saying someone might possibly get cancer in the future “semantics.” So, according to Richling, having cancer and not having cancer are the same thing.
February 1, 2014
The hilarious wellness industry smackdown Surviving Workplace Wellness is published. Since the HFC Nebraska program had too many lies to fit on a page or two, it gets its own chapter. Here’s the opening paragraph, which in all modesty I must admit is one of my favorite in the book.
February 23, 2014
Nebraska political blogger ReadMoreJoe picks up the scent. He points out that this wellness program is an obvious fraud. The problem is that the same posting is also exposing several other equally obvious frauds, so this one gets overlooked.
TIMELINE–PART TWO: GOETZEL STRIKES BACK
Ron Goetzel isn’t about to sit back and let his friends/sponsors/clients be pilloried for a little white lie about saving the lives of cancer victims who didn’t have cancer.
June 2, 2014
At the Health Datapalooza conference, Ron Goetzel, while admitting the Nebraska cancer outcomes data was made up, claims they/HFC still deserve the Koop Award because he somehow didn’t realize the data was made up at the time the award was granted. And it is true that HFC didn’t actually announce they had made up the outcomes. Ron would have had to actually read the materials to figure it out, same as I did.
Ron Goetzel calls the Nebraska program a “best practice” in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine but refuses to answer any questions about the obvious mistakes and inconsistencies in the article.
After knowing for 16 months that they had lied, Ron Goetzel, writing in Employee Benefit News, finally drops Nebraska from his list of best-practice programs:
Being a fair-minded person, I take it upon myself to congratulate him on his newfound sense of ethics. I don’t specifically agree that what he did was ethical, because the ethical thing would have been to admit complicity, apologize, and revoke their Koop Award. But I do say that Nebraska being dropped from the list of best practices means ethical “progress is definitely being made,” albeit from a low base.
Only 29 minutes elapses before Ron erases all my illusions about his honesty and re-adds Nebraska to the list of “best practice organizations.”
He also adds PepsiCo to the list. I guess losing only $2 for every $1 you spend qualifies as such in wellness, where most organizations lose much more.
In a rally-the-base invitation-only webinar, we are told that Ron has promoted the Nebraska program from “best practice” to “exemplar.” It seems like the more obvious it becomes that the whole thing was fabricated, the more Mr. Goetzel worships its outcomes.
TIMELINE–PART THREE: RON STANDS ALONE
WELCOA finally takes the fabricated case study of Nebraska’s outcomes off their website, 26 months after the fraud was admitted. Perhaps some pressure is being put on them to come clean, given that this is Nebraska’s program and they themselves are based in Omaha.
Just for the record, I’m not saying that an organization founded by all-you-can-eat cafeteria magnate “Warren Buffet” knowingly kept a false document on their site for those 26 months. History suggests they might just be slow learners. [2016 update: WELCOA is under new management, and they appear to be doing a great job, as exemplified by their development of the Employee Health Program Code of Conduct.]
This means Ron Goetzel is literally the only person left who thinks it’s perfectly OK — indeed, a “best practice/exemplar” — to lie about saving the lives of cancer victims. Good luck with that in the upcoming debate. It’s him against the world.
Or, as he sees it, everybody’s out of step but Ronnie.
Nebraska tentatively re-awards the wellness contract to Health Fitness Corporation. I am looking over the precipice towards utter humiliation.
TIMELINE–PART FOUR: THE ORIGINAL DATA DISAPPEARS
November 2, 2015–the original cover-up, on the morning of the Great Debate, in which Mr. Goetzel told 14 lies in 90 minutes, which is a lot even for him
At our urging, a third party alerted Mr. Goetzel to the fact that, his protestations to the contrary, the Koop Award Committee did know (even if they had somehow not seen the marketing materials quoted above) that Health Fitness Corporation was making fictitious claims about saving the lives of cancer victims. It was right in the award application. The original award application from Nebraska had originally stated (underlining is ours):
But then, a hour following the call from this third party the morning of the debate, the original award application suddenly read:
In the original application, this excerpt appears in a letter from the Governor of Nebraska. Only now the Governor’s letter says the opposite what he actually wrote. In the real world, this would be considered forgery. In wellness, a forged cover-up of a blatant and admitted lie about saving the lives of cancer victims who didn’t have cancer is considered business as usual. Johns Hopkins and Truven (Ron’s employers) don’t seem to mind either.
The state is rescinding its award to Health Fitness and terminating its wellness program. In the immortal words of the great philosopher Stewey Griffin, victory is mine.
September 2016: The cover-up of the cover-up
Mr. Goetzel finally acknowledges that Health Fitness Corporation told a whopper, and the Koop Committee overlooked it, allegedly by accident, for the four years during which I’ve repeatedly pointed it out.
He now calls this an “erratum.” However, the word “erratum” is usually used to correct honest mistakes (in sharp contrast to this one), usually within hours or days of their discovery (in sharp contrast to this one). You can’t forge official state documents and then call the whole thing an “erratum.” Is a robber allowed to give the money back after he gets caught and just uncommit the crime?
So now, having admitted that the award-winning vendor told the biggest lie in wellness history (against stiff competition), and knowing that all Nebraska’s obviously fabricated savings were mathematically impossible, and that waiving age restrictions for screening is akin to waiving age restrictions for buying beer, the Koop Committee finally, after four years, rescinded the Nebraska award.
Haha. No one falls for that line any more. Quite the opposite, they are doubling down. They say that whopping lies like this one don’t disqualify you, assuming you are an award sponsor. You get to keep your award.
Ditto, if your entire claim of “separation” between participants and non-participants is shown to be false but you are sponsor, Ron merely doctors the data and you get to keep your award.
Also, if it turns out you lied about your savings because there was no change in the biometrics to attribute the savings to, but Ron was a consultant on your project, you get to keep your award.
Likewise and as was confirmed in 2016, if you are a committee member, as Wellsteps’ CEO was until recently, despite your own data showing that you actually harmed employees, you get to keep your award.
Bottom line: as a friend-of-Ron, you might get to keep your award even if you shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.