A likely unanticipated consequence of the AMA’s decision to label obesity a disease, even though their own scientific council said not to, is that this might serve as the macguffin leading to furtherance of a protected class of people. This has serious implications not only for employment discrimination, but also for wellness programs, which often hinge vastly overblown claims of being able to help the obese who they almost universally label as “high risk” people.
Well, what if people who are obese, who are no doubt tired of being condescended to, first by wellness companies, and now by the AMA, decide that they are going to seek medical approval to opt out of wellness programs? A study recently published in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine reports on a highly coercive, electronically monitored walking program for obese people: 17% opted not to participate and another 5% actually got their physician’s approval to opt out. The physician approval to opt out is key to any resistance strategy.
Under the final wellness rules issued by the federal government earlier this year, physician certification that it is medically unadvisable for an employee to participate in a wellness program creates a burden for the employer and wellness vendor. They must provide reasonable alternatives that do not disadvantage the employee in terms of either time or cost and that address the physician’s concerns.
Further, if the employee’s physician disagrees with offered alternative, the employer and wellness vendor must provide a second alternative. The coup de grace is that “adverse benefit determinations based on whether a participant or beneficiary is entitled to a reasonable alternative standard for a reward under a wellness program are considered to involve medical judgment and therefore are eligible for Federal external review.”
Targeting people based on body mass index (BMI) is an intellectually, morally, scientifically, and mathematically bankrupt approach. The AMA’s decision will actually help obese people and advocates for their dignified treatment in the workplace and society start to understand that they can refuse to opt in to these insulting programs and, simultaneously, be protected from penalties. Clearly, this is the opposite of what unsuspecting employers expect when vendors (and their own brokers) sell them these programs: more useless doctor visits, less leverage with penalties…and more employee disgruntlement. Not just the obese will be disgruntled, but also those who have to pay the penalties because their BMI is too high to get the reward but not high enough to get a doctor’s note.
We believe that one of the most important ways for bringing the current spate of conventional workplace wellness programs to a grinding halt is for obese people to refuse to participate in them and to seek their physician’s guidance on every alternative offered to them. After all, the most important voice in organized medicine says that they have a disease and participating in a wellness charade run, more likely than not by people with no clinical or public health expertise, is not only a danger to their health but potentially a source of embarrassment and ridicule that they cannot and should not be coerced to endure.
Employers, on the other hand, ought to engage in a different dialogue with their wellness vendors. Ask your vendor if it calculates BMI. If it does, ask the vendor to explain why, given the paucity of evidence that knowing BMI is in any way a proxy for health status. Then, if you really want to help the people in your workplace who are obese, do these things for and with your people instead of to them: inventory your workplace’s entire relationship to food, everything from the treat bowls at employees’ workstations, to what’s in your vending machines, to what you serve at company-sponsored events.
Create company-wide food service guidelines even if all you have are vending machines onsite. Bring in a registered dietitian to give workshops on healthy eating. Work with local food retailers to develop focused couponing and discounting programs that encourage your workers to make better choices when they shop. Bring in wellness vendors, such as Stickk (a Gold Standard company), that can help people have fun while trying to improve their health, instead feeling like they’re being dragged to the health woodshed.
But, above all else, tell your people (obese or not) that your wellness goal is not to insult them, diminish them, or make them feel sick when they aren’t. Wellness, by any reasonable definition, should give people tools that empower them. How much they are willing to do is ultimately up to them.
Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness. An iconoclast to the core, he is the author of the Khanna On Health Blog. He is also the Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB.
Al Lewis is the author of Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, co-author of Cracking Health Costs: How to Cut Your Company’s Health Costs and Provide Employees Better Care, and president of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium.