Study Finds Wellness Programs Save Money

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Published March 02, 2011

| FOXBusiness

Health-care costs rose at a 15% slower rate among employers who consistently offered a wellness program to employees than in a comparison group, according to a recent study sponsored by Highmark Inc., a Pittsburgh-based health insurer.

The four-year study shows a $332 savings per participant, proving established wellness programs can help reduce a company’s health-care costs. The $332 savings compares to the $8,558-per-person U.S health care expenditure reported for 2010 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary, National Health Statistics Group.

The study, which was published in the March/April edition of the American Journal of Health Promotion, also shows that even small interventions like Web-based wellness programs, some which integrate existing onsite programs, encourage preventive service utilization. The latter may require upfront cost for service, but control costs long-term because of the healthier behaviors and resulting outcomes of participants.

During the 2003 baseline year of the study, engaged employers occurred greater costs, greater chronic disease prevalence and greater hospitalization. Costs of program participants showed a lower rate of increase in 2004, and then dropped below those of the nonparticipants for the duration of the study. Between 2003 and 2007, the increase in medical expenditures of the participant group was significantly less than that of the nonparticipant group, 31% to 46% respectively. This shows a “bend in a trend in health care costs,” says Jennifer Grana, director of health promotion at Highmark.

Positive Front-End Utilization

“Preventive-care costs more in the short term because participants were utilizing more resources than the population who did not see a doctor for mammograms and colorectal and other screenings, ” explains Grana. However, though the nonparticipants avoided the front-end costs of going to the doctor, their lack of prevention “represents hidden risk.”

Grana says that on-site programs boost preventative care and result in people managing medical conditions better. “Employers who increase health awareness are driving a change in behavior,” she says. “And Web-based tools are accessible to employees day and night—or whenever an employee is ready to make a change.”

On-site wellness programs can also boost productivity. Wellness programs help people manage depression, stress and back pain, for example, which are some key causes related to why people are absent from or not fully engaged when they are in the workplace.

Alignment with Health-Care Reform

Grana says Highmark is working with many employers who ensure preventive care for their employees at no expense by eliminating deductibles or copays, thus removing barriers. This strategy aligns with the tenets of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Bill passed last March.

The bill speaks to the value of prevention, a goal that is top of mind for most health care experts as they work to decrease costs.  Grana says this study shows that awareness and participation do produce results. “Employers need to work to keep people healthy or to encourage people who have chronic conditions to manage their conditions.” Grana says that people who take control of their health maximize all programs and resources available.

Study Characteristics

The study matched approximately 10,000 wellness program participants at 47 Highmark employer groups from national and regional employers in western and central Pennsylvania. The employer groups cut across age and gender and included people in good health as well as those with chronic conditions like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

Though a variety of wellness programs were represented by the participating employers, the common denominator was a Web-based feature that included a health risk assessment and online digital coaching.

Implementing wellness programs is easier said than done, and Highmark offers supportive resources to help customers develop data-driven wellness strategy. “We show them specific areas on which to focus objectives and develop an action plan. A lot of our customers are savvy in the world of wellness and know what will work for their populations,” says Grana. “Employers know their employees best; we come at them with data but they know their own culture.”

“We pass on [information] about what we’ve implemented so that our customers do not have to reinvent the wheel. Our boots are always on the ground to help employers.”

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