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All this time, I just thought that:
- employees got worse in wellness programs because
- wellness vendors, especially their CEOs, are stupid. (“In wellness, stupid is the new broccoli.”)
Here’s an example that would seem to fit the hypothesis like a glove:
- Wellsteps caused employee health to seriously deteriorate and
- their CEO needed to spend “11 years in college.” That’s four more than Bluto Blutarski (though I think Mr. Aldana did at least manage to graduate, possibly without even throwing up on the dean). Yet when he accused award-winning health writer Sharon Begley of dishonesty because she quoted Wellsteps’ outcomes report verbatim, he called her a “lier.”
So I put two and two together and thought: “stupid vendor equals program failure.” Turns out it’s much more complex than that.
A study published in Frontiers in Psychology examined the relationship between weight and wellness programs, with three studies, summarized here in their own words.
The present research focuses on a downside of workplace health promotion programs that to date has not been examined before, namely the possibility that they, due to a focus on individual responsibility for one’s health, inadvertently facilitate stigmatization and discrimination of people with overweight in the workplace.
- Study 1 shows that the presence of workplace health promotion programs is associated with increased attributions of weight controllability.
- Study 2 experimentally demonstrates that workplace health promotion programs emphasizing individual rather than organizational responsibility elicit weight stigma.
- Study 3, which was pre-registered, showed that workplace health promotion programs emphasizing individual responsibility induced weight-based discrimination in the context of promotion decisions in the workplace. Moreover, focusing on people with obesity who frequently experience weight stigma and discrimination,
- Study 3 also showed that workplace health promotion programs highlighting individual responsibility induced employees with obesity to feel individually responsible for their health, but at the same time made them perceive weight as less controllable.
Together, our research identifies workplace health promotion programs as potent catalysts of weight stigma and weight-based discrimination, especially when they emphasize individual responsibility for health outcomes.
This explains an awful lot. First and most obviously, why people gained weight in the award-winning Wellsteps, McKesson, and Vitality programs. In wellness, I observed three years ago, “fat-shaming is the new black.”
Second, it explains the futility of one of the two positive (albeit trivial) findings in the recent BJ’s Wholesale Club study — that more employees will “watch their weight.” Study 3 suggests that’s a bug, not a feature.
Third, it explains the harms being visited upon people who already have eating disorders. Especially because Ron says employees should weigh themselves daily, which naturally is the opposite of what the science says and is downright dangerous for people with eating disorders.
Finally, it explains why Ron Goetzel will be spending his entire life trying to turn lead into gold (or in his case, claiming he already has, by giving Koop Awards to a bunch of failed programs which he calls successes). Sustained weight loss as a result of wellness programs stigmatizing obesity has never happened in the past, and there is no possibility — none, zero — that workplaces trying to coax, cajole, bribe, fine, or shame employees into losing weight will ever be successful in the future.
Remember when the sergeant asked for a volunteer to step forward and Moe and Larry took a step back?
Looks like Virgin Pulse has won the best-HRA contest the same way. Yes, it is a complete waste of employee time and employer money. In HRAs, that’s table stakes. It earns a solid “C” not because anyone will learn anything of any value, but rather because the other two are worse. The VP HRA offers so little advice that none of it is really bad. It that sense it is better than Cerner’s (“F”) and Optum’s (F+).
Here’s what Virgin Pulse’s HRA gets points for not doing:
Tell employees to eat nonfat yogurt that is full of sugar (like Cerner):
Imply that employees on opioids should get more opioids (like Optum)
Advise employees against using olive oil (like Optum)
Further, it is actually coherent, instead of containing questions like… (Optum again)
…in which both non-asthmatics and completely uncontrolled asthmatics would give you the same answer.
Virgin Pulse’s “advice”
“Eat a healthy breakfast.” Who can argue with that? It’s like a manager advising the batter to hit a home run. Obviously the key is in the execution, and naturally Virgin Pulse provides none. In that sense, it is the best HRA because the others give such bad advice.
What constitutes a healthy breakfast? Can’t be just any old cereal. Those are full of sugar. Ah, maybe something like Kellogg’s Smart Start with Antioxidants, which is “heart-healthy.”
Oops. That’s on Eat This Not That’s “worst healthy cereals” list. Because it is — you guessed it — full of “heart-healthy” sugar.
Kellogg’s Special K Protein Snack Bars? 10 grams of added sugar apiece (and you’d likely eat 2–they’re small) with six different sugars dispersed throughout the ingredients label.
Eggs? For most people, eggs are a healthier choice than most packaged cereals. Of course, there are exceptions — a bit less than 1% of the population is genetically predisposed to high cholesterol. But wellness vendors would lose money if they actually spent the time to address these nuances. Of course, in this case, the “nuance” is that familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a much better predictor of cardiac events than anything in any HRA. As in about 40% of everyone with untreated FH will infarct before age 60.
Oatmeal? Probably the greatest consensus around that. (And that’s the breakfast of choice here at TheySaidWhat? World Headquarters.) Yet plenty of cereal companies, and fast food chains, have turned oatmeal into junk food. Dunkin’s “Brown Sugar Flavored Oatmeal” packs in 28 grams of sugar (none of which is actual brown sugar, as luck would have it).
Orange juice? That counts as a serving of a fruit according to the American Heart Association (AHA) and Virgin Pulse is a big one for telling you to eat up to 11 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, with “1/4 cup” of juice counting as a serving. Using the AHA math, an 8-ounce glass of juice would appear to get you 4/11ths of the way there.
And ads for “healthy” cereal sometimes show a glass of orange juice on the side:
On the other hand, NPR and Consumer Reports advise against considering juice as a healthy alternative. The sugar is “natural,” but there is an awful lot of it. (I myself am not a nutritionist, and don’t even play one on TV, so I don’t have an opinion on whether natural sugar is OK and added sugar isn’t. Except I would point out that grape juice contains natural sugar while grape juice concentrate is an added sugar. Both can’t be right.)
So which is it? Drink more juice, or don’t? Which constitutes “eating a healthy breakfast” ? I don’t know and I suspect neither does Virgin Pulse. The difference, of course, is that TSW isn’t charging lots of money to give employees advice.
Completing the Virgin Pulse HRA
Obviously, employees are going to lie on HRAs, and Virgin Pulse’s is no exception. I was invited to watch a group of employees completing theirs, For each answer, they gamed the system. What is the optimal amount of stress to claim? Too much might harm their career. Too little and someone might give them more work.
How much should they claim to drink? “Not at all” might cause their (well-known!) employer to think they’re lying, so they all decided to cut their true totals in half.
Servings of fruits and vegetables? Most of them just made up a number that would sound good to an employer.
Everyone seems to know employees lie on HRAs (including, of course, Virgin Pulse) except the employers that still use them, whose quest to create a culture of health ends up creating a culture of deceit. No need to take my word for this. Simply complete this chart to see what percentage of your employees with something to lie about are indeed lying — and what the odds are that an employee with something to hide will tell the truth about it:
Let’s try completing this chart, using the most recent winner of the C. Everett Koop Award, Wellsteps.
Result: in the so-called best wellness program, almost 2/3 of employees lie, though in all fairness to Wellsteps, some of those could be the same employee lying twice. And extrapolating from Wellsteps’ result, the odds of an employee coming clean about a bad health habit are about 1-in-4. That’s the average of smoking and drinking. Generally the more socially acceptable habits will show a higher percentage of employees telling the truth.
Keep in mind, too, that there is another way to lie on HRAs, which is understatement. You may recall from Wellsteps that the 23% who drink only imbibe 1.3 drinks a day, while 3% who do admit to smoking indulge in cigarettes only 4.27 times a week, perhaps taking a break on weekends and major holidays, such as Beethoven’s Birthday.
Due to the lying and uselessness, should employers drop HRAs altogether?
In the immortal word of the great philosopher Curly Howard, soitenly.
Do employees cheat in outcomes-based wellness programs? Of course not. Who would ever gain weight in order to be paid to lose it? That would be dishonest and unhealthy.
Haha, good one, Al.
Yes, obviously employees cheat in outcomes-based wellness programs and crash-dieting contests. But here are two things that aren’t so obvious:
- Cheating is far more widespread than employers would like to believe;
- This massive scale of cheating — two-thirds of all employees cheat in wellness — is well-known but suppressed by self-proclaimed “scientists” in the field, whose livelihoods would be in jeopardy if they acknowledged the scale of the cheating.
Cheating is widespread
How do we know this? Bloggers receive data from WordPress on hits for each post. Not just the number of hits, but the specific sources of the click-throughs — other bloggers or else “search engines.”
In any given week, the current posts and the home pages get the most hits. However, for the year as a whole, it’s a different picture. Take a looksee at our total hits for 2018:
Our typical blog post — not including home pages and related pages — gets about 2500 hits over the course of the year in which it is posted. But you’ll see that #3 on the 2018 list is: “How to cheat in a corporate weight-loss contest.” Almost every day that particular post racks up 15-25 hits, giving it 6388 for 2018. I used to assume that some other, more popular, blog was linking to it, but I can see linked blogs too on the Site Stats page, and there weren’t any.
Here are the 2019 stats through yesterday.. A new cycle of wellness programs and crash-dieting contests is about to start, so despite New Years week being a very slow week for TSW (like other HR blogs), that post is #1:
Further, even though these stats are 2018 and 2019, this blog was posted November 2016.`
What is driving this continuing popularity?
It turns out that the source of these click-throughs is indeed “search engines.” Seems that even though the target audience for this posting was the narrow HR/benefits community, employees themselves are googling on “cheating in wellness programs” and finding this post right on the first page of hits:
That also explains how we could get so many hits and yet so few comments and Facebook reposts. No one wants to be caught.
You might say: “That’s only 6,388 employees for a full year. The rest are honest.” Nice try, but consider:
- “Only 6,388 employees” clicked through despite noting from the first lines (as you can see) that this article really wasn’t a guide to cheating.
- This post is way down at the bottom of the front page.
- This was only a single year — 2018 — and the 2019 rate arithmetically projects to about 20,000 hits (though much of this posting’s hits are seasonal)
- The #2 source of click-throughs to this article is Slate’s masterful expose called Workplace Wellness Programs are a Sham, also on the first page of google hits above, which itself links to us–meaning that employees are also clicking through on that article in the same search.
- The 6,388 excludes the gazillion employees who don’t need to google anything in order to realize that the winning strategy in any outcomes-based wellness program or crash-dieting contest is to binge before the initial weigh-in and crash-diet before the final one — and of course lie on the risk assessment.
- The keywords that drive traffic to this site, according to Alexa? #3 — after Bravo and Wellsteps, two vendors who are “in the news” constantly — is “Healthywage Cheating.” Healthywage is the leading crash-dieting contest vendor.
The scale of cheating…and the suppression of the evidence by the wellness industry
Employees who don’t drink, smoke, use drugs, or occasionally indulge in foods other than broccoli and kelp have no need to cheat. They will also derive no benefit from wellness programs and employers will save no money on them, not even any make-believe savings that wellness vendors routinely claim. It is estimated that only 3% of people do everything right, health-wise. That mean the pool of potential cheaters is 97%.
How many of the potential cheaters are actually cheating? Review your own statistics yourself. 70% of employees drink, including 10% who drink more than 30 drinks a week. How many of your employees indicated on their HRA that they drink that much? Zero, you say? What a coincidence! That’s what all the other employer-administered HRAs conclude as well.
How many employees admitted drinking at all? If you said 20%, that would match the number claimed by Wellsteps for their award-winning program. That means slightly more than 2/3 of all drinkers — half your employees — are lying. Not because they’re inherently dishonest, but because you are basically asking them to lie in order to stay out of trouble. What kind of trouble? Wellsteps called consumption of any alcohol a “worst health behavior,” shaming employees who admitted to even occasional social drinking. Nonetheless they fully accepted as fact the 20% drinking rate statistic.
By encouraging all this lying, Wellsteps helped this employer, the Boise School District, create a culture of deceit instead of a culture of health. Kudos.
Now consider smoking. For that we turn to the industry’s leading source of alternative facts, Ron Goetzel. He “found” that for the years 2012-2014, 5.5% of his surveyed workers smoked, overlooking the statistical 12.3% of employees — roughly 2/3 of all smokers — who lied. Yet, like Wellsteps with the drinking, Mr. Goetzel presented this statistically impossible 5.5% as fact.
It’s not a coincidence that roughly the same proportion of smokers and drinkers lie. Nor is it a coincidence that these two “scientists,” as they call themselves, decided not to disclose the lies. Since they claim to be “among the most credible and conscientious scientists and practitioners working in corporate wellness today,” this is much more likely to be a deliberate omission than a rookie mistake, especially since I’ve informed them of this disparity and many other obvious misstatements many times and they usually just doubled down.
Admitting that their data is basically worthless means their entire conclusions are basically invalid, which in turn means that outcomes-based wellness itself is a fraud, which by the way it is
Lying to employers about personal behaviors is human nature. Most employees don’t want to disclose potentially damaging information, and think, quite justifiably, that if they give their employer 100% during working hours, their off-hours behavior is none of their employer’s business.
How can cheating in wellness be prevented?
For those two studies, Mr. Goetzel and Wellsteps were only encouraging employees to lie to their employers and cheat on the programs. The majority of employees responded predictably. By contrast, when you run an outcomes-based wellness program with large fines, or hold annual crash-dieting contests, you’re not just encouraging employees to lie and cheat. You’re practically begging your employees to lie and cheat. In crash-dieting contests, employees form teams, and strategize on how to binge and then crash-diet, allowing them to lose far more weight in 8-16 weeks than is healthy. Any team not intending to cheat wouldn’t even bother to compete. Teams that do want to compete will visit websites teaching them how to cheat, and which appetite suppressants and weight-loss pills to buy in order to win.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a wellness vendor which, instead of denying human nature about cheating, channeled it? Instead of bragging about ferreting out “fraudulent participants,” made cheating part of the fun? There’s a word for that, and it’s not “impossible.” It’s “Quizzify.” Employees can rack up points for correct answers…and they are encouraged to look them up before selecting their response from the multiple-choice list. That way they are more likely to remember them.
And, unlike “how to cheat in wellness,” if you google on “How to cheat on Quizzify,” you won’t find any advice on cheating — other than Quizzify’s own rules urging employees to do exactly that.
For this year’s Deplorables Award, the winners were given a chance to fact-check in advance, and declined. No need for them to have wasted the effort — only one person, Keith McNeil, has ever found a material mistake in any They Said What posting
As in past years, we convened our panel of distinguished judges to address the age-old question about “pry, poke and prod” wellness programming: how is this stuff even legal?
After they get done contemplating that — and wondering why they’re the only people in the industry who seem to have ethics, an internet connection, and a triple-digit IQ — the judges reviewed the candidates for the coveted Deplorables Award. While any wellness vendor is eligible, they ruled out It Starts with Me, and US Preventive Medicine, since those vendors, whose claims are validated by the Validation Institute, apparently didn’t get the memo that you can’t succeed in this business without lying.
Ruling out those two dramatically narrowed the field down, to only about 1000. Narrowing the field even more, a few, like Provant, took themselves out of the running by going bankrupt. (Individuals are not eligible for the Deplorables Award, so we also need to rule out Ron Goetzel, despite his best efforts to make a late run at the trophy.)
This year, as in previous years, it boiled down to a battle between the very stable geniuses at Interactive Health vs. the people with very good brains at Wellsteps — more than coincidentally the 2017 and 2016 winners respectively. It was a close one. There are very fine people on both sides. Together with Mr. Goetzel, they constitute the wellness industry’s Axis of Genius.They both fabricate outcomes, flout guidelines, and harm employees, so it came down to a simple race to see who, in the wellness industry’s epidemic of very stable geniusitis, would be Patient Einstein.
The case for Wellsteps is compelling. To begin with, after a few proud possessors of high school diplomas observed that their fabricated ROI model will always return a “savings” of $1359 if you zero out inflation even if the smoking and obesity rates go from 0% to 99%, in 2018 they reprogrammed the model so that instead of always returning a “savings” of $1359 in the final program year regardless of what assumptions you input, an obvious rookie mistake that only an idiot wouldn’t notice when designing an Excel spreadsheet model, the model will always returns a “savings” of $1356 in the final program year, regardless of what assumptions you input.
Ah, much better, thank you.
Don’t take our word for it. Here it is. Note that for some reason the actual trendline on the graph doesn’t show up any more. You need to read the fine print instead. Here is what happens if you reduce smoking and obesity from 99% to 0%…
…and here’s what happens if your population already has 0 smokers and no obesity, so no improvement is possible:
If those columns of numbers at the bottom of each chart look identical, it’s because they are. This happens no matter what numbers you enter. (You are no longer allowed to enter increases in smoking or obesity like I used to do, so don’t even try. SPOILER ALERT: If you could, you would still get $1356 in savings.)
And, almost a decade after they first posted their ROI model, it still doesn’t calculate an ROI. Hello, do you see an actual ROI on this screenshot? At this point we’d settle for a phony one. (A real ROI estimation model can be found here.)
Their CEO has been featured on They Said What this year, with his take on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s invalidation of wellness outcomes. He accidentally admitted it was valid.
He claims to have spent “11 years in college.” Yet, even though that’s 4 years longer than Bluto Blutarski, he still can’t add the two columns of numbers he published that showed how badly his Koop-award-winning program for the Boise School District failed. Here are those two columns, a comparison of risk factors in the baseline year vs. one year into the Wellsteps program:
Here’s what happens when you actually add his two columns up — turns out there was a dramatic deterioration in Boise schoolteacher health status.
So it looks like that was, to paraphrase the immortal words of the aforementioned great philosopher Bluto Blutarski, 11 years of college down the drain.
The case for Interactive Health is equally compelling. After winning the Deplorables Award last year, they decided to double down on cluelessness, and so in 2018, they started a “smoking recession [sic] program.”
No one could figure out what they were talking about — apparently including the creators of their smoking recession program, who eventually took it off their website. My hunch was that they were trying to get smokers to switch to Parliament, which features a recessed filter, on the theory that the smoke would take longer to get into people’s lungs.
Later in the year they solidified their front-runner status with three more postings.
- A college intern was able to invalidate their claim that younger workers had more mental health issues than older workers, and that therefore you needed to pay Interactive Health to screen them;
- Next came Interactive Health-meets-Barbie, where they told someone whose HRA showed her to be severely anorexic that she was in a “healthy range.” We noted the irony that this is a company that wants to send almost half your employees to the doctor to treat “newly discovered conditions”…and yet here was someone who appeared to really have a condition that needed attention…and they missed it altogether;
- And just last week they cemented their candidacy by providing a cornucopia of misinformation about the EEOC.
That brings us back to the original question: how is it even legal to harm employees and completely disregard clinical guidelines, as these two companies are wont to do? Well, it turns out that, starting in 2019, it may very well no longer be. No, I’m not referring to the EEOC rule change. That will make companies liable to their employees for fining them, but it will still be legal to screen the stuffing out of them.
The good news is that apparently there will be a move afoot in the next session of Congress to prevent wellness companies from attaching penalties to screens that violate US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines — which is to say, most of Interactive Health’s and (according to Wellsteps’ CEO, Steve Aldana, himself), Wellsteps’.
If this bill were to pass, three things would likely happen:
- Employees would improve on health status;
- Employers would save money on wellness;
- Wellsteps and Interactive Health would throw up on Dean Wormer.
Dear Wellness, Diabetes, Clinic, Price Transparency, and Medication Therapy Management Vendors,
While most of you already know the majority of these tricks, there might be a few you haven’t deployed yet. So take good notes.
PS If you are an employer, just pass this along to your vendors…and watch your savings skyrocket. Or use “An Employer’s Guide to NOT being snookered” to see your savings become realistic.
Best practices for every vendor
Compare participants to non-participants. Using non-participants as a control for participants allows you to show massive savings without doing anything. This is not an overstatement. Here is a program — which naturally won an award for its brilliance from Ron Goetzel and his friends before I observed that they were a fraud according to their own data– that did just that. They separated participants from non-participants but didn’t bother to implement a program for two years—by which point the participants had already improved by 20% vs. the non-participants — without even having a program to participate in. (Note on this slide that the control and study group were set up in 2004 but the program didn’t start until 2006, when the cost separation had already reached the aforementioned 20%.)
Two other observational trials support this conclusion. Most recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research ran a controlled trial to test exactly this hypothesis. Sure enough, like the three observational trials, they found that virtually the entire outcome in wellness can be explained by that popular study design itself, rather than the intervention.
In any participation-based program, ignore dropouts. Assume that employees who drop out do so randomly, not because they are discouraged by their lack of progress or interest.
Draw a line upwards and then claim credit for the “savings” between the actual upward spending and the “trend” you drew. As Optum’s Seth Serxner stated so succinctly: “We can conclude that the choice of trend has a large impact on estimates of financial savings.”
Start with the ridiculously high utilizers, high-risk people, or people taking lots of drugs. Let the group regress to the mean, and then claim that as savings.
Never admit, like Wellsteps did, that you are familiar with regression to the mean, since most employers are not aware of it. The higher the costs/risks of the original users, the more savings you can claim. Here are two verbatim claims:
- A heavy equipment manufacturer found high use of the ER was a becoming a cost concern, so it send mailings that showed appropriate care settings to the homes of members with two or more visits to the ER in the past year. As a result, ER visits were down 59 percent those who got the mailing.
- A pharmaceutical company saw a spike in ER claims was coming from repeated use by the same people, so two mailers were sent: one to households with one ER visit in the past year; another for those with two or more visits. Following the mailings, there was a 63 percent drop in ER visits.
Pretend not to notice that low utilizers can show an increase in utilization — or especially that low-risk people can increase in risk. Focus the mark (I mean, the customer) on the high-risk people who decline in risk. Never draw graphs to scale, or your customer might notice that 2/3 of their employees are low-risk in the first place.
It doesn’t matter what your intervention is. Claim credit for the entire difference in trend. For instance, in this example, Community Care of North Carolina claimed credit for a huge reduction in PMPM costs for babies for their medical home program…but babies weren’t even included in the program. (Neonatal expenses didn’t decline either.)
Or do what Safeway did, launching the wellness craze: change to a high-deductible plan, and transfer a large chunk of costs to employees. Don’t even bother to institute a wellness program, but attribute all the savings (from the transferred deductible spending) to wellness anyway, so that you get invited to the White House. And after that blows up on you, demonstrate that your very stable genius investment in wellness was not a fluke by investing your company’s money in Theranos.
Special Instructions for transparency tool vendors
Assume that every employee who uses your tool is looking to save their bosses some money, rather than (for instance) to find the closest MRI…and that none of them would have used a lower-cost venue absent your tool.
If only 10% of employees use your transparency tool, and only 10% of events are shoppable, nonetheless take credit for the entire difference in trend across the board, and ignore the literature showing online price-comparison tools don’t work.
If people who haven’t met their deductible shop more than people who have, attribute the former’s lower cost to use of the tool, rather than to the fact that by definition people who don’t meet their deductible spend less than people who blow through it.
Special instructions for wellness and diabetes vendors
If you are a wellness or diabetes prevention/management vendor, never ever let employers know that every year since statistics have been kept, fewer than 1 in 1000 employees/dependents end up in the hospital with diabetes. (And another 1 in 1000 with a heart attack.) Always tell them how many employees are at risk and how many “newly discovered conditions” they have, and how they will all end up in the hospital, even though hospitalizations for heart attacks and diabetes in the employer-insured population have been declining for years.
Wellness vendors should always put the trivial percentage reduction in risk (for participants only, of course – and ignoring dropouts) on one page and the massive savings on another page. Most employers won’t bother to do the math to notice, for example, that Interactive Health claimed $50,000 in savings for every employee who reduced one risk factor, while the state of Nebraska won an award for claiming to save $20,000+ for every risk factor reduced, as did Staywell for British Petroleum.
If you didn’t reduce risk factors, present your outcomes in a format no one can make heads or tails of, like this one, from Wellsteps. If Wellsteps was able to snooker an entire committee of self-anointed outcomes experts to win an award for program excellence, surely you can snooker a few customers.
Claiming people lose weight is a big part of your outcome reporting, so make sure to do the following:
- Never count nonparticipants, and ignore dropouts.
- Don’t do any long-term follow-up to see who regained the weight (most participants)
- Give them time to binge before the initial weigh-in
Special instructions for diabetes vendors
In addition to measuring on active participants only, raise the bar for Hb A1c so that only people with high Hb A1c’s can be included. That belt-and-suspenders approach will ensure that you can’t fail to show savings, even if (as is likely the case) you don’t change anyone’s behavior other than the employees who were going to change anyway, which you might as well count.
Next — most diabetes vendors and a few wellness vendors have already figured this out — you can charge much more if you can submit claims, rather than just be an admin expense line item. You see, most employers focus much more on the 10% admin expense than they do the 90% medical expense, which they consider to be beyond their control. Your claims expense – which would draw attention to itself as an admin cost — won’t get noticed in the 90% of medical losses, sort of like the dirt from the tunnel sprinkled around the Stalag in The Great Escape.
Special instructions for medication therapy management vendors
Only mention “gaps in care” that you close, not the ones that open up. And, as noted in the chart below, always use percentages. So in this chart (provided by one of the major PBMs), they claimed that twice as many gaps were closed (37%) vs opened (18%), and yet, as is almost always the case with MTM vendors, nothing happened to the total number of gaps, which remained at exactly 820:
Tally all the employees who were on large numbers of meds and now take fewer. But don’t mention all the employers who were on fewer meds and now take more.
What to do if you’re asked why you aren’t validated by the Validation Institute
Here are the most popular answers to that question:
- No one has asked us to. (Quizzify didn’t need to be asked.)
- We hired our own outside actuarial firm to validate us, and they concluded we save a lot of money.
- Sure, we’ll get validated as soon as you sign the contract with us.
In a recent video that we urge everyone to watch, Steve Aldana of Wellsteps (proud recipient of the 2016 Deplorables Award) recently admitted that “wellness is the most researched topic in healthcare.”
He is absolutely right about that. There are dozens of studies showing that wellness loses money and often harms employees.
And he would know because he has produced a ream of research showing that Wellsteps’ very own program is arguably the worst program on the planet. I say “arguably” because Wellsteps’ Boise program may not be the worst program on the planet. It is only the worst program on the planet according to its own documented findings. I never thought I would say this, but I applaud Mr. Aldana! His willingness to tell the truth is admirable.
Funny thing about the wellness industry. Every other industry’s “research” always make their product look good. For years, cigarettes were safe–according to the tobacco industry. The oil and gas industry often publishes research showing there is no global warming. And Monsanto executives are probably the only people on earth who think Agent Orange is harmless.
Sure, critics can and do “challenge the data” those other trade groups publish, but to the credit of those organizations, at least they don’t accidentally disprove their own message in their own “findings.”
Quite the opposite in wellness. About 40 seconds in, Mr. Aldana says: “Critics of the wellness industry say that the studies are flawed.” No, Mr. Aldana, we are not accusing you of being “flawed,” or even of lying. We are accusing you of telling the truth, for once. The wellness industry is unique in that its own data is its own worst enemy. Remember the saying: “In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
While he showed great integrity by reporting the Boise outcomes accurately (and even exposed his results to a wider audience, albeit under duress), that display of integrity turns out to be out of character. Alternative fact-tellers need to have long memories, and his is apparently quite short. When he first reported the financial results, he made the impossible claim that Boise’s healthcare costs fell by a third, due to his forced wellness program even though flouting clinical guidelines and giving out questionable advice also caused a 20% increase in risk factors:
But his report was so long that by the time he got to the end of it, he had completely forgotten this alleged savings claim…and accidentally admitted costs actually increased. (He later suppressed the latter finding, but I always anticipate cover-ups by wellness vendors so I take screenshots before posting anything. It’s been said that the beginning of the end of “pry, poke and prod” was the day a millennial taught me how to capture a screenshot.)
Yes, you might note, the participants did marginally better than the non-participants (though the latter seem to have the momentum). And that brings us to his next claim in the video, where he laments the lack of randomized clinical trials. Actually, there have been two, the most recent one highlighted in the New York Times recently. And, yes, of course, they show “pry, poke and prod” has no impact. The NYT article specifically demonstrated that participants-vs-non-participants is an invalid methodology that will always show savings even if nothing happens. A vendor called Newtopia also did an RCT…and showed the same thing. 100% of savings was caused by the act of separating the two groups based on motivation…and when you re-combined them, there was no savings.
The wellness trade magazine had also previously admitted this, though as noted Mr. Aldana has a short memory.
Mr. Aldana closes by claiming that if I am right about wellness losing money, then all these CEOs and CFOs who still think it saves money are “idiots.” Well, if he says so. And this is not the first time he has dissed his own clients. When he was caught flouting clinical guidelines, he claimed his customer made him do it.
This statement — that “we must be right or else we would have been outed before” — is akin to Paul Manafort’s original defense to tax fraud charges: “If he was committing such large-scale fraud, why didn’t the IRS audit him?” Manafort’s attorney quickly backed off that defense. Like Paul Manafort and the IRS, the only thing that a company still using one of these vendors in the “Axis of Genius” proves is that the wellness industry excels in snookering them.
Please feel free to email a colleague about Mr Aldana. Not because we are asking you to, but because he is:
When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.
If this list looks familiar, it’s likely because it largely coincides with finalists for the Deplorables Awards. One exception would be Keas, though. They’re on Wellsteps’ best vendor list even though they no longer exist, likely victims of their own stupidity. I will miss them though — if laughter were the best medicine, they would be the best vendor. You would, however, be better off contracting with a vendor that didn’t exist than with Wellsteps — at least your employees wouldn’t get worse.
Likewise, Provant is no longer with us. They drank themselves to death. (Water, that is — they insisted every employee drink 8 glasses a day.)
The law of averages did catch up with Wellsteps, though. They listed US Preventive Medicine, whose outcomes, almost uniquely in the wellness industry, are validated by the Validation Institute.
A couple of other quality vendors are listed too. I asked one how they got mixed up with these people, and he replied that he had no idea how they got on that list. Another vendor thinks the point of the list is to help Wellsteps with SEO, on the theory that these vendors, to show off this award, will link to Wellsteps, thus raising Wellsteps’ Google ranking. Let’s see how that’s working out for ’em:
Likely Google ends up this way because no self-respecting, honest, vendor would deliberately link to Wellsteps. If they put Quizzify on this awards list, Quizzify would send a cease-and-desist letter. It would be a worse stain on Quizzify’s reputation than winning a Koop Award.
Another thing the Koop Award has in common with Wellsteps: Channeling Nero, they both bestow awards upon themselves. Look closely at that list: one of the best vendors named by Wellsteps is: Wellsteps.
One other observation: the very stable geniuses on the Koop Award Committee — which loves to give its board members and sponsors awards — are largely also mixed up with the Health Enhancement Research Organization, known as HERO. HERO rhymes with Nero. Coincidence? I think not.
This is the second time Wellsteps has published this list. Since the list is unchanged, our write-up can be unchanged too. Below is the write-up from the first time they pulled this caper, the first Sunday in November of last year.
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 we don’t have to endorse ourselves), and also play wellness-meets-whack-a-mole with the Wellness 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 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 very stable geniuses 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 Wellsteps’ list, in the form of the Don Draper Award, for this advertising gem, aimed at ensuring that even the most stable genius HERO Board member 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.
We’ve posted many times on the subject of wellness as seen through the eyes of employees who have been harmed or just really annoyed. And Slate carried a number of comments from other employees, who said things along the lines of: “I’d like to punch them in the face.” We also often write about employees who “out” vendors whose advice is truly bad.
Of course, we have also posted on the viewpoints of wellness promoters, our favorite lines coming from the very stable genius Michael O’Donnell, the former Prevaricator-in-Chief of the wellness trade association’s magazine, who contributed the following nuggets:
- “Wellness is indeed the best thing since sliced bread, up there with vaccines, sanitation and antibiotics.”
- “[Wellness] can prevent 80% of all diseases.”
- “Workplace health promotion may play a critical role in preserving civilization as we know it.”
This, on the other hand, is the first time we’ve posted from the viewpoint of a wellness coach, Barb Ryan Tessari.
Here is her take:
And this is why wellness can be such an epic fail:
A few observations about what makes it much more complicated and nuanced than wellness vendors would have us believe:
Hmm…So much for Wellsteps claim that employees “are suffering from I-don’t-care-itis.” It’s just the opposite — employees care about too many things, so sometimes their own needs come last. (As an aside, I always listen to my father’s stock market advice because in the stock market, the only person whose advice is as valuable as the person who is always right is the person who is always wrong. So when planning your wellness strategy, listen to Wellsteps!.)
ER and doctor visits often lead to expensive testing for chest pains, stomach issues, breathing problems or generalized aches and pains when the underlying cause is extreme stress/anxiety. I know their story. I know their stress. Many doctors don’t even ask the question.
Newly diagnosed diabetics (or pre-diabetics) are not sent to nutritional counseling, but instead the doctor prescribes metformin and merely instructs them to stop eating carbs.
Some doctors, whether intentionally or unintentionally “fat shame” their patients. I have heard the employees’ stories often, which delays care and certainly doesn’t empower a patient to make changes in self care
It seems many primary care doctors specialize in sending patients to specialists. And specialists don’t talk to each other. The focus seems to be to figure out what is wrong within the scope of their practice. There is little “connecting of the dots” to see if one problem could be connected to another. Patients are passed from one specialist to another and the employer and employee are paying the bill – not to mention the loss in productivity.
This is one of the reasons we frequently highlight Interactive Health in these postings — their whole business model is to brag about how many patients they send to the doctor for more tests for “newly discovered conditions.”
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.
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.