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The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 2)

By AL LEWIS

Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, as coincidence would have it.


Soeren Mattke (as mentioned in the last installment) and I were quite relentless in trying, quixotically, to get Professor Baicker to explain her results. Its popularity could have landed her many profitable speaking and consulting gigs, but she evinced no interest in cashing in, or even in defending her position. Indeed, the four times she spoke publicly on the topic, she didn’t do herself, or her legions of sycophants in the wellness industry, any favors. In each interview, she distanced herself more and more from her previous conclusion. Here are her four takeaways from her own study “proving” wellness has precisely a 3.27-to-1 ROI:

  1. It’s too early to tell (um, after 30 years of workplace wellness?)
  2. She has no interest in wellness anymore
  3. People aren’t reading her paper right (Shame on us readers! We’re only reading the headline, the data, the findings and the conclusion, apparently)
  4. “There are few studies with reliable data on the costs and the benefits”(um, then how were you able to reach a conclusion with two significant digits?)

Individually or in total, these comments sounded an awful lot like retractions, but she (and her co-author and instigator, David Cutler) claimed those comments didn’t constitute retractions. Whatever they were, she wasn’t exactly doubling down on this 3.27-to-1 conclusion.

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The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 1)

By AL LEWIS

Let’s climb into the WABAC Machine (and, yes, that’s the way it’s spelled) and set the dial for 2008.

Then-candidate Barack Obama, campaigning on the promise of universal health coverage, enlisted Harvard professor David Cutler as his key adviser on that topic. Business lobbying associations were not thrilled about their members having to cover all their full-time employees and incorrectly assumed, then as now, that the major drivers of healthcare cost were employees smoking, overeating, and not exercising. Prof. Cutler suggested, quite correctly, that one way to assuage that concern would be to allow employers to spend less money covering employees with those three health habits.

Fast-forward to 2009, when it appeared that — with enough concessions to enough vested interests — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could become a reality. Business lobbying groups were, then as now, powerful entities. Using Prof. Cutler’s suggestion, they were pacified by allowing businesses to tie up to 30% of total premium dollars to employee health (in practice, largely employee weight). Generally, the business lobbying groups engineered this withhold in the shadows. It wasn’t until 2015 that one of those business groups, the Business Roundtable, publicly admitted that the 30% withholdwas the main reason they bought into the ACA.

Since this 30% was basically a giveaway to corporations, the Obama Administration needed to justify it as a cost-savings measure. On the one hand, they had the Safeway experience “proving” that wellness could save money in practice. This alleged proof was met with open arms by both parties. Safeway’s CEO became a “rock star” on Capitol Hill.  (Of course, Safeway’s wellness program, like virtually every other great-sounding success in wellness, turned out to be a scam. In retrospect, just reading the Safeway CEO’s Wall Street Journal op-ed* announcing these results, it’s amazing how the mind-blowingly fallacious statistics didn’t get called out back then, by me or anyone else.)

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PCMH Fails Natural Experiment

flying cadeucii

Medical Homes Fail Yet Another “Natural Experiment”

Three “natural experiments,” three failures.  Such is the fate of patient-centered medical homes (PCMH), a well-intentioned but unsuccessful innovation now kept afloat by the interaction of promoter study design sleight-of-hand with customer innumeracy.

By way of review, a natural experiment is an experiment in which the design is outside the control of investigators, yet mimics an experiment.  The first two natural experiments below involve applying the intervention across entire states. The third involves a stimulus-response experiment in one specific community.

Statewide Natural Experiments: North Carolina and Vermont

In North Carolina, a statewide Medicaid PCMH was implemented years ago and steadily expanded until most Medicaid recipients belonged to one.  There was no reduction in relevant event rates (for ambulatory care-sensitive admissions) and costs increased. While the overall Medicaid budgets were routinely exceeded and that should have caused legislators to realize that something in their PCMH was amiss, Milliman fabricated data to pretend the PCMH program was a success.  Milliman got caught making up data (and ignoring other data that quite definitively invalidated its conclusion, and changed their story 180 degrees, a tacit admission that they lied.  And shortly thereafter (at least “shortly” by the standards of state government), North Carolina announced that it is abandoning this failed experiment.

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Should Your Employer Have the Right to Track Your Weight?

Suppose there were:  (1) a widely held but false perception that gays had lower productivity and higher healthcare costs than straights; (2) false literature that companies with gay conversion programs outperformed the stock market; and (3) a mandate that companies disclose to shareholders the percentage of gays they employ.

Obviously, many corporate CEOs would stop hiring gays, de facto require gay conversion among current employees, and fire gays who failed the program, in order to maximize stock price and hence their own net worth.

Preposterous? Of course, but if Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Vitality Group and a few pharmaceutical companies get their way, this exact same scenario will befall overweight employees.  Indeed, two-thirds of this dystopian scenario is already in place:

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Genetic Testing: The New Frontier of Wellness Madness

The Wall Street Journal just reported that Genetic Testing May Be Coming to Your Office Soon. This is all well and good, assuming employees would want their health insurer’s buddies collecting their DNA for no good reason, handling it, selling it, and possibly losing it. This is not us talking. This is what the testing company itself says on their website. You can read all about it here.

Instead we will focus on the fact that this scheme simply doesn’t save money – according to the main proponents of this dystopian scheme, Aetna and its buddies at the ironically named Newtopia.  Anticipating the day (yesterday) that this would become front-page news, we have already showed how Aetna’s study accidentally showed the opposite of what it intended to show. This is that proof.

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The Ten Worst Wellness Programs and What They Do to Harm Employees

flying cadeuciiIf corporate wellness didn’t already exist, no one would invent it.  In that sense, it’s a little like communism, baseball, or Outlook.

After all, why would any company want to purchase programs that damage morale,reduce productivity, drive costs up…and don’t work 90%-95% of the time?  And that’s according to the proponents.  What the critics say can’t be repeated in a family publication such as ours.

Still, those are the employers’ problems. However, the employers’ problems become the employees’ problems when employees are “voluntarily” forced to submit to programs that are likely to harm them. (As the New York Times recently pointed out, there is nothing voluntary about most of these programs.)Continue reading…

Does the ACA Actually Mandate Free Checkups?

flying cadeucii“Where in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) does it mandate that every health insurance policy must include a free annual checkup?”

I posed this question to Al Lewis and Vik Khanna in the comments of their recent post entitled: The High Cost of Free Checkups, where they argue against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provision that requires “free checkups for everyone.” They cite a recent New York Times Op-ed authored by ACA co-architect, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, that essentially debunks the link between annual checkups and overall health outcomes.  For Lewis and Khanna the solution is simple, we need to “remove the ACA provision that makes annual checkups automatically immune from deductibles and copays.” But for me there’s an enormous problem with their argument: The ACA doesn’t actually have any such provision.

After raising the issue in the comments section of the post, Mr. Lewis responded informing me that: “It’s definitely there” and “You’ll have to find it on your own, though — I unfortunately have to get back to my day job.” What Mr. Lewis doesn’t consider with his quick dismissal, is that I have already looked.  I’ve combed through the law and other policy guidance, rules and regs; searching for any mention of this required annual wellness exam, physical, visit, or any other linguistic derivative.  It doesn’t exist.

It turns out that while the law does require that an annual wellness visit be covered (sec. 4103. “Medicare coverage of annual wellness visit providing a personalized prevention plan”), this requirement is specific to Medicare beneficiaries and does not apply to individual or group plans. Beyond this particular section you won’t find any mention of a requirement within the ACA.

So what gives?  Lewis and Khanna aren’t the only ones who’ve mentioned this “free” Obamacare benefit. Even when researching this piece I had to engage in a lengthy discussion with a friend who is a healthcare policy advisor, unexpectedly defending my position. This claim has to be coming from somewhere, surely people smarter than me have gotten it right?

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Commentology: The Real Professor Baicker

flying cadeuciiInfluential RAND researcher Soren Mattke had this to say in support of Al Lewis and Vik Khanna’s latest post on the Wellness story “Would the Real Professor Katherine Baicker Please Stand Up?

“Gentlemen. Great post. Like you, I am disappointed that researchers of the caliber of Kate Baicker and David Cutler do not respond to the mounting debate about their paper. They should defend or disown their work rather than hope that the debate goes away.

In my mind, their paper is a product typical of high-end academic research. Two brilliant professors spot a gap in the evidence on a hot policy topic and decide to go after it. But the actual work gets done by a graduate student in his cubicle without windows or guidance, and then hastily published.

Then the problem arises that the paper becomes hugely influential and people start having a closer look. For our paper on the PepsiCo program, we reviewed in detail the seven publications that Baicker and colleagues called “high quality evidence”. We found that five of those analyzed programs that operated over 20 years ago and most of them had severe methodologic flaws. (John P. Caloyeras, Hangsheng Liu, Ellen Exum, Megan Broderick and Soeren Mattke. Managing Manifest Diseases, But Not Health Risks, Saved PepsiCo Money Over Seven Years. Health Affairs, 33, no.1 (2014):124-131)

Unfortunately, many defenders of the industry continue to take the Baicker paper at face value, while closely scrutinizing or ignoring more nuanced and scientifically sound findings.

So I herewith support your motion!

The Value of Workplace Health Promotion (Wellness) Programs

flying cadeuciiThe recent Health Affairs Blog post by Al Lewis, Vik Khanna, and Shana Montrose titled, “Workplace Wellness Produces No Savings” has triggered much interest and media attention. It highlights the controversy surrounding the value of workplace health promotion programs that 22 authors addressed in an article published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine titled, “Do Workplace Health Promotion (Wellness) Programs Work?”  That article also inspired several follow-up discussions and media reports, including one published by New York Times columnists Frakt and Carroll who answered the above question with: “usually not.”

There are certainly many points of contention and areas for continued discussion on this topic. It turns out that Lewis et al. and I agree on many things, and there are other areas where we see things differently.Continue reading…

Keas Poll on Workplace Stress and Disease Burden Provides an Education

companies health productivity
Al’s son once complained to Al’s Aunt Tillie about an overbearing supervisor.  Aunt Tillie suggested that he try to work under a different supervisor.  Tillie was one of those people – and we all know them – who could be counted on to inadvertently provide punchlines when needed.  Conversely, Al is one of those people – and we all know them – who can’t resist setting up those punchlines.  So I lamented that this suggestion may not work because, “Aunt Tillie, it’s a sobering fact that 50% of all supervisors are below average.”

Tillie replied, “I blame our educational system for that.”

Likewise, we may need to blame our educational system for Keas’ new poll on workplace stress.  To begin with, the lead paragraph from Keas — which like many other companies is “the market leader” in wellness – “reveals” that “4 in 10 employees experience above-average stress.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – (Apr 2, 2014) – Keas (www.keas.com), the market leader in employer health and engagement programs, today released new survey data, revealing four in ten employees experience above average levels of job-related stress. Keas is bringing attention to these findings to kick off Stress Awareness Month, and is also providing additional insight and tips to bring greater awareness to the role of stress in the workplace and its impact on employee health.

Wouldn’t that mean some other employees – mathematically, also 6 in 10 – must be experiencing average or below-average levels of stress?   It would seem like mathematically that would have to be the case.   However, the Keas poll also “reveals” that while some employees are average in stress, no employee is below-average – a true paradox.  Hence Keas’ selfless reasons for publishing this poll:  All employees being either average or above average in the stress department means we have a major stress epidemic on our hands.  This perhaps explains why Keas is “bringing attention to these findings.”

In a further paradox, Keas also uses the words “average” and “normal” as synonyms, even though they are often antonyms:  All of us want our children to be normal but who amongst us wants their children to be average?

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