On March 20, 2013, the media picked up a story about CVS Caremark’s latest wellness program. In summary, CVS will be requiring all of its employees to complete a health screening in order to qualify for a reduction in their health insurance premium. For those employees who participate, the employee’s screening data goes to a third party, and CVS never sees it.
Such wellness financial incentives are commonplace and have been around a long time. And if that is how the media had described the CVS program, it’s doubtful anyone would have even paid any attention to it. Unfortunately, that’s not how the media ran with the story. Let’s look at how the media sent the wrong message – using ABC News as an example – and why it matters to get the message right.
Sending the Wrong Message
ABC’s Good Morning America segment was emblazoned with the headline, “Who’s Watching Your Weight – CVS Employees Required to Disclose Weight.” Their website ran a similar headline, “CVS Pharmacy Wants Workers’ Health Information, or They’ll Pay a Fine.”
Those headlines are provocative – but they’re completely misleading. Employers do NOT look at their employees’ weights, and they’re not about to start doing so. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), it is illegal for an employer to know an employee’s weight or any other personal health information. While ABC did mention that the data goes to a third-party wellness vendor, this fact is glossed over so quickly that it does little to change the overwhelmingly negative nature of the headline.
ABC posted the following statement below the segment’s online video: “New policy makes it mandatory for employees to report personal information to keep health insurance.” The word “mandatory” is misleading here, and the employer is NOT getting the employee’s health information. In short, ABC has thoroughly confused the matter. No viewer or reader could be reasonably expected to know what to take away from this story.
You can guess where it went from there. More media outlets picked up the CVS story, and Twitter caught fire with people mad at CVS. So what’s the big deal? Isn’t this just the way the media always acts, and shouldn’t we ignore it? No, because wellness is important in the context of a nation that wants to get healthier, and contrary to the tone of the media coverage, both employers and employees have a similar stake in the matter.
We can’t lose sight of the following critical point: employers that are making substantial contributions to their employees’ healthcare premiums have a vested interest in trying to foster a healthier workforce. It’s not just the employee who feels the pain of escalating premium costs; when the employer is making a significant contribution, the employer is feeling it too. Within the next decade, the obesity rate could pass 50% or higher. Future insurance costs could get much worse unless we find ways to make wellness work.
Many companies, and CVS is just one of countless examples, are trying to build effective wellness programs and reward employers who participate. The incentives are important for encouraging participation. For now, employers and employees are in this together. What’s the alternative? Unfortunately, some employers will wash their hands of the insurance business entirely, and leave employees to fend for themselves. And for many Americans, that will be much worse than being asked to participate in a wellness program in exchange for better insurance contributions.
A Healthy Debate is Progress
That doesn’t mean that all wellness programs or wellness incentives are created equal. And without a doubt, there is a debate worth having here. The issues of healthcare payment, responsibility, privacy, and rights are complex and the stakes are important. But the media’s portrayal did everyone a disservice by spreading misconceptions and portraying corporate wellness as something only Big Brother could dream up. Progress can’t be made if people don’t even understand the issues.
To ABC News and the other media outlets that portrayed wellness strategies in such a negative light, we hope that you will reconsider your approach to wellness and produce a piece that has real value. One that acknowledges the complex relationship between the cost of insurance, the rights of those who pay for that insurance, and the impact of unhealthy lifestyles on driving those costs up. What are the rights of the employer versus the rights of the employee? Where do the lines get drawn? We invite the media to join the conversation, rather than crank out hasty tabloid headlines.
And to CVS, we congratulate you on promoting and rewarding wellness in your organization. We congratulate the growing number of companies that are taking wellness seriously, exploring the shared role of the employer and the employee in health and insurance costs, and whose efforts will continue to uncover the strategies that work best.
Note: beBetter is NOT the provider of the CVS wellness program. We have no affiliation with CVS or the vendor that provides its wellness services.