How the Media Portrayed the CVS Wellness Program-and Got It Wrong

How the Media Portrayed the CVS Wellness Program-and Got It Wrong

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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.

Wellness Matters

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.

Greg Juhn is the Senior Vice President of Product Strategy and Marketing at beBetter Health, Inc. You can reach him at greg.juhn@bebetter.net.

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72 Comments on "How the Media Portrayed the CVS Wellness Program-and Got It Wrong"


Guest
William
Mar 4, 2015

As everyone else pointed out penalizing an employee $600 a year for not allowing the corporate masters to invade our privacy and dictate our lifestyles does not make for an incentive, much less make it voluntary. Sorry but how i live my life is my business. The only time and employer has a right to dictate anything to anyone… Is while the employees are on the clock. Once an employee clocks out, the employer should just mind their own friggin business. My personal life is just that… PERSONAL!!! Ill be damned if i let any employer dictate how i live my life, much less the corporate masters who have republicans humming on nuts

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Feb 10, 2015

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Guest
Aug 25, 2014

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Guest
TheSkeptic
Feb 14, 2014

Ethics and morals are seen as a quaint relic in the American corporation and executives have all the incentive (bonuses for saving money) and none of the risk for misusing this information to get rid of workers with costly health problems.
Sure, there is a law against it but the only people ever prosecuted are low-level clerks.

We live in an age in which business schools teach that the only responsibility of a corporate officer is to make profits. This kind of program is the logical outcome.

Guest
Jun 11, 2013

This article is well-written and informative. However, there is one major error. CVS will NOT be lowering any insurance premiums for employees who submit their health information. Instead, employees will have their insurance premiums increased by $600 per year if they do not submit this information. I should know. I am a CVS employee.

Guest
Samir Batra
Apr 12, 2013

Greg,

Very nicely put. This is a topic that seriously needs attention. ABC is doing what media loves to do – create a story. I wish they had enticed people to click on the article and then actually spoke the truth.

As far as wellness programs that promote an employee to manage their healthcare is the way to go. I mean I do not understand why more employers are not doing this! I mean is it not obvious to them that healthier employees would promote lower healthcare costs? I know organizations like Whole Foods do great work around this.

Great article – and keep fighting the fight – I am right their with you. I think the root of a lot of this and more focus also needs to be on childhood obesity and the fact that our schools do a really poor job of educating and informing our kids on two main aspects of life – their health, and value of money or personal finance. Kids become young adults and have no clue about how to eat and exercise right, and have no concept of personal finance! Thanks for getting me charged up!!

Guest
Jean
Mar 29, 2013

Two things: First, I am guessing that, given your bio, you work for a company that provides said “third-party” services. That makes you a little biased in this debate, don’t you think? Second, employers put more and more of the financial responsibility on employees with each passing year. So, although you claim that their investment is substantial, I would beg to differ. Again, I think your employment most likely shades your opinion on this matter. Let’s face it, Americans pay through the nose for health insurance. We do not want to be further penalized because we have privacy concerns and concerns about our PHI getting out to people who have no right to it. And isn’t this a free country? If it’s OK for CVS to jam this down employees’ throats, I have absolutely no idea why it isn’t OK to regulate the size of soft drinks. Yes, CVS is private and NYC isn’t. So what? Using your line of logic, we should fine everyone for each poor decision they make. No offense, but in my mind, your probable bias removes any credibility your argument might have had with me otherwise.

Guest
Apr 30, 2013

Certainly, I have a bias. Everyone has a bias – or more accurately, a collection of biases. My main bias is in helping employers construct wellness programs. I don’t have a strong bias toward the incentive structure the employer comes up with, as every company is different.

I’ve noticed a lot of people equating these corporate actions with governmental “nanny state” regulations. Well, if you don’t want companies doing this sort of thing, guess what you will need – more government regulations.

Guest
Mar 28, 2013

Well lets be honest about things. First of all, a $50 increase in healthcare cost for not participating is NOT an “incentive” its a penalty. An “incentive” would be a decrease in exisisting premiums in exchange for participating. In all reality there is no incentive, your healthcare cost will stay the same, it will only go up if you choose to exercise your right to privacy. And also, its not “voluntary” when you force a $600 penalty per year for not participating. People in todays world can not afford $600 per year, so its basically forced and not voluntary. And lastly, the one thing that I still do not understand is the claim of the employer never receiving any of the healthcare screening information. When attending the CVS healthcare enrollment meeting I was given a document that had information about these healthcare screenings. In that document, which I still have, it clearly says there will be “Healthcare Rewards” and also penalties associated with these healthcare screenings. How can CVS give rewards and/or penalties based on these healthcare screenings if they never get any results? And its not confidential because CVS does receive aggregated data from screenings by the 3rd party involved. But I would still like to know how there are rewards/penalties when they never see the results?

Guest
Bon Scotch
Mar 27, 2013

I work for CVS. There is so much mis-info in this article and others like it, I do not know where to begin. Let’s dissect this article. “79% of large employers incorp health assessments in their health care plans”. Define “large company”. Give some examples. Name your source for “the study” of large companies. I have no problem with using health assessments to anylize costs. What I have a problem with is fining me a surcharge for not handing over my personal/private/confidential health info to ANY 3rd party. Whose business is it? I have a constitutional right to privacy. I DO have a right to privacy as stated in the 4th, the 5th,and the 14th amendments of our Bill of Rights. I do not agree with Rodriguez in his challenge that his privacy to smoke was intruded upon. He was a known smoker, and did not attempt to keep it private. I am glad he lost his case. With the Seff case, he simply refused to give a voluntary healh assessment to THE COUNTY he work for…government job…and was NOT subjected to a fine if he did not comply. He also filed his case based on the ADA (American’s With Disabilities Act). He did not want his employer (The State of Florida)to know he was disabled. He had a case, but filed it incorrectly. He should have retained a better labor law attorney.
Also, a misleading fallacy with CVS, they claim they gave incentives in the prior 3 years. This is a false statement. 3 years ago, they took away our $250/annual incentive by subsidizing the cost of a local gym membership. Last year CVS offered a $180 discount on our health plan premiums if we got a physical exam by our personal physician, and had him/her fax in the results directly to United Health Care(I refused this offer as well). One story read, “CVS charged their employees a $180 fine if they refused a health screening”. This is a false statement. In a memo to all employees, CVS is claiming that the NEW $600 fine is “an incentive”…wait one minute mister! How is fining me and 220,000 other employees $600, an “incentive”? Crazy talk. And lastly, all of this health screening malarky began the day Obama was elected president for his 1st term. Wait, how many times did we hear this “If you like your current health plan, you can keep it!” “If you like your doctor, you can keep him/her.” “My Affordable Care Act will decrease health care premiums by $2,500 per average family”… Doesn’t anyone want to hold this man’s feet to the fire? Let me finishe by saying this: CVS is attempting to fine me and others for one reason, and one reason only. The “fine” is to simply defray the $2,000 cost per employee CVS will be incurred when it dumps it’s employees into the Obamacare exchanges. Plain and simple. How do I know this? Today, I have 36 health plan options within CVS. It has been announced (3 weeks ago) CVS will offer it’s employees ONE PLAN for 2014…yes, an HSA (health savings account), and NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE. Wake up folks. WE ARE ALL ALL ABOUT TO BE DUMPED BY OUR EMPLOYERS INTO OBAMA’S Health Exchanges !! We lose, employers save BILLIONS.

Guest
BobbyG
Mar 28, 2013

So, all of your larger angry anti-Obama rant aside, you are saying the asserted facts of the CVS $50 / month charge are wrong?

And, how does the large amount of CVS floor space devoted to selling alcohol and junk food square with their purported concern for health?

Guest
Wolf
Apr 30, 2013

I am CVS Caremark employee also. I would like to clear up a few things. First off the $180 incentive was not dependent on you getting a Health Screening last year. It was dependent on you completing one of the Wellness Programs offered by the Well Rewards program. There were a number of different programs you could have completed. I did one on stress relief and another on eating well. Some of the Programs would also give you a reward if you completed it during that quarter. It was $50 in which you could get an american express gift card for. I did receive one of those. However I believe alot of this is in perspective. I can understand a HEALT Insurance company like CVS which is a Pharmacy Benefit Management company wanting to work with the employees to have better health. However Like many others i find it a little invasive in some of the information we have to provide to be able to be able to receive these “INCENTIVES”. Also I have been in the Health Insurance industry for about 25 years. I have seen the slow increased in Medical cost from the beginning. It seems each year it goes up. But I have to agree with my CVS Colleage Bon Scotch that ever since the OBAMACARE bill was passed I have seen the large insurance companies increase the Premiums of the companies they insure at very high increases. That includes just about any Large Healtcare company that you can think of right now. In a period of 2 years I saw my Deduction go from $350 to $1250. This year my Deductible went up to $2000. Also my premium increated by 35%. I will admit there are some things in the OBAMACARE Bill that are helpful. But overall it just caused Healthcare companys to increated their premiums and force everyone to “OBTAIN” insurance otherwise they will be “FINE”. Oh wait did the sepreme court say it cannot be a “FINE” but it would have to be considered a “TAX”. As with many of the laws today the OBAMACARE Bill only hurts the law abiding people of this country. Just like with every other Federl Program those who don’t want to be bound by it will find a way around it. As my colleague stated where is my reduction in HealthCare Premiums of $2500 as per Barack Obama on his Affordable Care act. I expect that we will have to pay even higher premiums with the HealtCare exhanges.
Healthcare reform should be how to lower cost not raise it as it has with OBAMACARE. Next time you go to the hospital look how much they are charging you for gauze. Then go to the local pharmacy, drugstore, or grocery store and see how much they charge you for the same gauze. Then tell me where OBAMACARE is reducing the cost of Healthcare.

Guest
John Auge
Mar 24, 2013

This is what a true and compassionate employer can do…assist, nurture and motivate their employees. It’s often a directive of change. Doing more, doing better…and yes, their health and well being is part of that.
I think CVS can fly a banner of bold and constructive leadership.
They happen to be my choice of pharmacy/retailers.

Guest
Mar 28, 2013

Compassionate? Constructive leadership? Thats being very extreme. CVS tells their employees not to smoke on their property because CVS is “compassionate” and cares about their health. So how come CVS sells those same cigarettes in their stores? Because when the price is right they will take the profit, but when the price is wrong for them they tell you not to do it. Its hypocritical at best. If they really cared they would not sell cigarettes at all. But like I said, they have no problem with the profits at the other end. Just as long as those sick smokers are not their employees that have their healthcare plan. Any company that big only cares about money. Everythng they do is based around money and profits. You have to be a fool to think anything else.

Guest
Mary C
Mar 23, 2013

So all that happens is that some non-participants did not gain the incentive.

Guest
Mary C
Mar 23, 2013

What also was projected inaccurately is that HIPAA does not “allow” penalties, only incentives What CVS would have done is have the base premium price for their healthcare benefits. Those that participated would then get a discount, and the ones that did not participate would pay the higher premiums (which were the base ones.) It is not correct to say that you get a penalty, as everyone has the same base premium cost.

Guest
Mar 22, 2013

Let’s make one thing very clear: employers are *not* paying for health insurance for their employees.

Whatever they pay insurers on behalf of their employees is in lieu of wages. The money belongs to the employee, and the employer is just aggregating the purchase to obtain better terms. They are more than welcome to stop doing that.

Sure, employers would love to cut health insurance costs without increasing wages, but the need for better margins does not give employers the right to invade employees privacy through some HIPAA circumventing shady “third party” deal.

It’s good for you is not a valid excuse either. If the government put a “third party” operated scale at the DMV and asked you to step on it, or pay a hefty fine, and join some “third party” run wellness program if you’re too fat, would ABC then be allowed to have its headlines?

Guest
Mar 23, 2013

Many employers are contributing significant amounts toward insurance, so whether it is in lieu of wages or not, they have a stake in the health of their workforce. I might have a different position if healthcare costs weren’t such a problem. Thanks for your comment and good points.

Guest
Mar 23, 2013

Thank you for the reply, Greg, and I do agree that employers have a stake in the health of their workforce (and/or equipment, real estate, etc.). However, we as a society decided that this stake does not give employers the right to discriminate based on health status, and I don’t see why now they are asserting the right to financially penalize based on the same.
No, this unfortunately is not illegal, since HHS came out with specific guidelines on how employers should intrude into employee (and family) privacy. Where once, large group insurance could not rate and discriminate based on preexisting conditions, now it can.

BTW, I would 100% support government regulation mandating that every office building and factory should have a decent workout facility, or that employer run cafeteria could enjoy some tax breaks if they served healthy food, or any other regulation aimed at making it easy for employers to provide the tools people need to stay healthy.

Guest
Mar 28, 2013

Im not so sure about the claim of this “not being illegal”. Here is a direct quote from the Americans with Disabilities Act:
“Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), once employment begins, an employer may only make disability-related job inquiries and/or require medical examinations in the following circumstances: (1) if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity; (2) in order to follow up on a request for reasonable accommodation; or (3) as part of a voluntary wellness program.
According to the EEOC, a wellness program is voluntary if an employee is neither required to participate nor penalized for non-participation. If a failure or refusal to participate means that the employee is ineligible to enroll in a group health plan or access funds in a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA), the program would not appear to be a voluntary wellness program. ”

So this (A) is indeed a wellness program, (B) is not job-related, and (C) is NOT voluntary due to the $600 yearly penalty for not participating. This law was specifically made to protect people from exactly what CVS is doing. If it is indeed legal, its only because they found some kind of loophole. This is EXACTLY what this law was trying to protect people against.

Guest
BobbyG
Mar 22, 2013

Ah, somebody gets it.

Guest
Rina Tikia
Mar 22, 2013

” Takes team work to bend the cost curve on healthcare.”

“Would that include banning super size soft drinks?”.

You bring up an interesting point. CVS’ core business needs to thrive to cover payroll, taxes, expenses and overheads, including healthcare costs. Without this, there would be no CVS. And as I understand, CVS’ #1 expense according to SEC filings is their payroll. CVS#2 expense is health and welfare benefits for their employees.

Do we want to put the cart before the horse or the other way around? CVS is simply positioning itself to engage patients and plan members in behaviors that will improve health outcomes and lower health care costs. Think about the value to an employee that is incentivized to get a free exam and identifies a silent killer such as Hypertension or High Cholesterol.

Kudos to CVS for offering healthcare packages and employment of 200,000+! No CVS would result in job losses, more uninsured, foreclosures….etc…etc.

Guest
Peter1
Mar 22, 2013

“CVS’ #1 expense according to SEC filings is their payroll. CVS#2 expense is health and welfare benefits for their employees.”

Did you find their main profit drivers?

“CVS is simply positioning itself to engage patients and plan members in behaviors that will improve health outcomes and lower health care costs.”

Where does the “teamwork” start? Is society at large part of the team? CVS sells cigarettes and CVS sells junk food. Whose health are they interested in to deserve so many “kudos”?

“engage patients and plan members in behaviors that will improve health outcomes and lower health care costs”

How about their customers behaviors and health outcomes?

Guest
BobbyG
Mar 25, 2013
Guest
Peter1
Mar 25, 2013

Great video Bobby! Best advice CVS can give its employees for better health – DON’T SHOP HERE!

Before they start trying to fix other peoples houses they should fix their own – if health care leadership is what their PR people are touting.

Guest
BobbyG
Mar 25, 2013

CVS Caremark CEO makes $15 million a year. Dude looks a bit jowly to me. But, I bet his doesn’t get any crap over HIS health care coverage.

I took footage of the large beer coolers too, but that clip got screwed up, so I went with what i had.