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Tag: Wellness

The Biggest Urban Legend in Health Economics–and How It Drives Up Our Spending

The wellness emphasis in the Affordable Care Act is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2009 call to action about chronic disease:  The Power to Prevent, the Call to Control.   On the summary page we learn some shocking statistics:

  • “Chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths each year in the United States.”

  • “About 133 million Americans—nearly 1 in 2 adults—live with at least one chronic illness.”

  • “More than 75% of health care costs are due to chronic conditions.”

Shocking, that is, in how misleading or even false they are.  Take the statement that “chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths,” for example.  We have to die of something.   Would it be better to die of accidents?  Suicides and homicides?  Mercury poisoning?   Infectious diseases?    As compared to the alternatives, it is much easier to make the argument that the first statistic is a good thing rather than a bad thing.

The second statistic is a head-scratcher.  Only 223 million Americans were old enough to drink in 2009, meaning that 60% of adults, not “nearly 1 in 2 adults,” live with at least one chronic illness — if their language is to be taken literally.   Our suspicion is that their “133-million Americans” figure includes children, and the CDC meant to say “133-millon Americans, including nearly 1 in 2 adults, live with at least one chronic illness.”   Sloppy wording is not uncommon at the CDC, as elsewhere they say almost 1 in 5 youth has a BMI  > the 95th percentile, which of course is mathematically impossible.

More importantly, the second statistic begs the question, how are they defining “chronic disease” so broadly that half of us have at least one?    Are they counting back pain?   Tooth decay?  Dandruff?   Ring around the collar?    “The facts,” as the CDC calls them, are only slightly less fatuous.   For instance, the CDC counts “stroke” as a chronic disease.   While likely preceded by chronic disease (such as hypertension or diabetes) and/or followed by a chronic ailment in its aftermath (such as hemiplegia or cardiac arrhythmias), a stroke itself is not a chronic disease no matter what the CDC says.  Indeed it is hard to imagine a more acute medical event.

They also count obesity, which was only designated as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in June–and even then many people don’t accept that definition.   Cancer also receives this designation, even though most diagnosed cancers are anything but chronic – most diagnosed cancers either go into remission or cause death.    “Chronic disease” implies a need for and response to ongoing therapy and vigilance.  If cancer were a chronic disease, instead of sponsoring “races for the cure,” cancer advocacy groups would sponsor “races for the control and management.”  And you never hear anybody say, “I have lung cancer but my doctor says we’re staying on top of it.”

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What’s Science Got to Do With It?

Penn State University is now embroiled in a national controversy over the ham-handed launch of its coercive and intrusive wellness program, which can cost recalcitrant employees as much as $1,200 per year for not joining.  That ignominy of being the most distasteful and coercive program, however, belongs to Blue Care Network of Michigan, which recently published results from their “voluntary” walking program designed exclusively for their obese enrollees.  The invitation to join was extended to enrollees with a body mass index (BMI, which is an unscientific, mathematically bereft proxy for health – see Keith Devlin’s excellent article ) of 30 or greater.  The program was “voluntary” as long as you were okay with paying $2,000 in added insurance premiums if you did not volunteer.

Avoiding the $2,000 price tag came with its own cost in dignity and privacy.  Enrollees agreed to either: 1) wear an electronic pedometer and connect it to their computer daily to document completion of at least 5,000 steps or, 2) join Weight Watchers or some other approved “weight cycling” program.  This princely sum is not irrelevant to most families.  In fact, it is almost exactly equal to per capita spending on food eaten at home in the US and about four percent of median US household income in 2011.  So, in a household occupied by a single adult, this will almost buy your groceries for a year, meaning that is hard to refuse, and the less money you make the more likely that resistance will prove futile.

The BCN strategy legitimizes telling people who look a certain way that they should submit to online, electronic monitoring or pay more for their insurance than people who don’t look that way.  Why would an obese person submit to this when it is entirely possible that he or she is fitter and more metabolically healthy than an normal weight unfit person who would never be condescended to this way?

More disturbing is the prospect that this is only the leading edge of life-invading monitoring by the wellness industry.  It is easy to envision sleep monitoring because you have bags under your eyes.  Or, what about wrist-worn breathalyzers to make sure you don’t go over the one or two drink limit, or sneak cigarettes after lying on your health risk appraisal that you don’t smoke?  How much electronic surveillance would you be willing to undergo on the pure guesswork that it might save someone (i.e., your employer or your health plan) money?

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The Other Penn State Scandal

It’s one thing to lead by example and quite another to be made an example of.  The executive leaders of Penn State University, who have managed to generate quite enough terrible publicity over the past couple of years, have now gone boldly where no employer has gone before.  By implementing a coercive, intrusive, and wasteful “wellness” program during the academic year’s summer doldrums and miscalculating that it would go unnoticed, they have invited the wrath of their own faculty.

The PSU wellness initiative like so many before it relies on the hydra of preventive medical care, which is both clinically and fiscally ineffective; a personally intrusive health risk appraisal; and, a whopping incentive/penalty of up to $1,200 per year if you don’t play ball, which is double the national average.  Penn State faculty, led by political science professor Matthew Woessner of their Harrisburg campus, have responded with outrage and a petition for withdrawal of the program, which now has 1,500 digital signatures.  Penn State’s HR team, led by VP Susan Basso, has doubled down on its own ignorance claiming that the opposition is “unfortunate and sad.”  What’s unfortunate and sad is that employees of a college can’t do math or read .

Penn State faculty are right to oppose the wellness program on both ethical grounds and economic grounds.  Their creativity on how affected faculty and staff should respond is applause-worthy.  Entering bogus data on the HRAs (both legal and harmless to employees because HRAs are anonymous) and refusing to get any of the preventive care recommended are useful guerilla steps.  They are also discussing a blanket refusal to participate, which means either everyone gets hit with the penalty or no one does.

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A Second Look at the Link Between Obesity and Mortality

A controversial study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that overweight people have significantly lower mortality risk than normal weight individuals, and slightly obese people have the same mortality risk as normal weight individuals.


This meta-analysis, headed by statistician Katherine Flegal, Ph.D., at the National Center for Health Statistics, looked at almost 100 studies that included 3 million people and over 270,000 deaths. They concluded that while overweight and slightly obese appears protective against early mortality, those with a body mass index (BMI) over 35 have a clear increase in risk of early death. The conclusions of this meta-analysis are consistent with other observations of lower mortality among overweight and moderately obese patients.

Many public health practitioners are concerned with the ways these findings are being presented to the public. Virginia Hughes in Nature explains “some public-health experts fear…that people could take that message as a general endorsement of weight gain.” Health practitioners are understandably in disagreement how best to translate these findings into policy, bringing up the utility of BMI in assessing risk in the first place.

Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told National Public Radio that “this study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it.” He argues that weight and BMI remain only one measure of health risk, and that practitioners need to look at the individual’s habits and lifestyle taken as a whole.

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The Strange Case of the C. Everett Koop National Health Award

The late Dr. C. Everett Koop was the most revered Surgeon General in history, perhaps even the most revered Cabinet member.  His calling card—indeed, his claim to fame – was his integrity.  A Reagan appointee, he acted as though he reported to no one other than the American people and his own conscience.  His penchant for candor and scientific independence fueled the federal government’s groundbreaking steps to raise public awareness about HIV/AIDS at a time when the tendency was to demonize and diminish.  He resisted incessant political pressure and refused to take positions or produce data that he knew to be false.

This drew strong support from both sides of the aisle, and even his detractors never questioned his honesty.  (Exhibit A:  The two authors of this posting, whose political views have little else in common other than respect for strong, independent-minded politicians.)

Dr. Koop’s legacy stands in sharp contrast to the eponymous award dispensed by The Health Project, whose committee members have turned their back on their founder. The last thing Dr. Koop would have expected is to see is *his* award bestowed upon  people who know that they don’t deserve it.  The 2012 award was given to three recipients for work done in Nebraska:  a vendor that claims wellness programs don’t even have to exist to save money, an outfit that can’t even spell the name of its own founder, and a state employee benefits plan that is under investigation for sky-high administrative costs.

Among the extravagant statements that formed the basis for the award (like claiming more than $20,000 in savings for every person who reduced their risk factors for a year, even though per-person spending is only $6,000), they claimed to have made 514 “life-saving catches” on employees with otherwise undetected cancer.  This data was obviously wrong to begin with — that cancer rate would have been at least 40 times greater than Love Canal’s.  Nonetheless, it sure sounded good, and the Governor of Nebraska himself was all-in too, so an award was issued.

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Stop the Presses: A Disease Management Program Worked

I am known in the disease management and wellness fields as a naysayer, critic, curmudgeon, and/or traitor…and those are only the nouns that are allowed to be blogged across state lines.  This is because I am driven not by wishful thinking but rather by data.  The data usually goes the wrong way, and all I do is write down what happened.  Then the vendors blame me for being negative — sort of like blaming the thermometer because the room is too hot — because they can’t execute a program.

However, the nonprofit Iowa Chronic Care Consortium (ICCC) apparently can execute a program.  They reduced total diabetes events by 6% in the rural counties they targeted.  This success supports a hypothesis that in rural (presumably underserved) areas, disease management fulfills a critical clinical gap:  it provides enough basic support that otherwise would not be provided even to those who actively seek it to reduce near-term complications and exacerbations.

This result will likely produce its own unanticipated consequence: because many people now believe (thanks, ironically, to some of my own past work) that disease management doesn’t produce savings, there will be widespread skepticism about the validity of this study.  Quite the opposite:  this “natural experiment” is as close to pristine as one could hope for in population health, for five reasons:

  1. There was no participation/self-selection bias because outcomes were measured on all Iowa Medicaid members.
  2. The program was offered in some Iowa counties but not others, so there was no eligibility or benefits design bias, Medicaid being a statewide program.
  3. The program encompassed only one chronic condition (diabetes) rather than all five common chronic conditions normally managed together (asthma, CAD, CHF, and COPD being the other four).   Since all five conditions were tracked concurrently, whatever confounders affected the event rate in one of those conditions should have affected all of them.   And event rates in the four other conditions did indeed move together in both the control and study counties.   Just not diabetes.
  4. The data was collected exactly the same manner by the same (unaffiliated) analysts using exactly the same database so there is no inter-rater reliability issue.
  5. Both groups contained hundreds of thousands of person-years and thousands of events.

As one who has reviewed another high-profile “natural experiment,” North Carolina Medicaid, and found that the financial outcomes were the reverse of what the state’s consultants originally claimed (incorrectly, as they later acknowledged by changing their answer), I can also say that natural experiments in population health don’t harbor some as-yet-unidentified confounder that causes the study population to outperform the control population.

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The Affordable Care Act and the Death of Personal Responsibility

I was a chubby kid, which brought with it all manner of slights, both real and imagined.  My predicament was worsened because I came from an immigrant family, and my father was tormented by unrelenting and untreated bipolar disease.  When he was lucid, however, he taught essential lessons that neither he nor I knew at the time would become my life’s cornerstone: don’t trust the professions too much; advance your own cause through limitless learning; and, use exercise — all forms of it — as an irreplaceable lever for personal betterment.  My dad may have been out of it more often than not, but he swam, did calisthenics, played tennis, and boxed, and he walked vigorously right up until the end of his life.  I saw, I learned, I did (and still do).

Imagine, then, my chagrin at how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) effectively shears away the concept of personal responsibility and mastery of lifelong wellness skills  from the pursuit of actual health.  It was a huge missed opportunity to teach Americans about what’s first in the line of responsibility for good health.

Instead, the ACA’s philosophical foundation ignores the power that individuals have to impact their personal health trajectory, and it compels Americans to accept lifelong roles as patients in a system that many of them not only don’t want any part of but that they distrust and don’t understand.  It is exactly the opposite result that something called “health” reform should have produced.

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British Petroleum’s Wellness Program is Spewing Invalidity

A critical observation in Cracking Health Costs is you need not “challenge the data” to invalidate claims that wellness saves money.  Instead, you can simply read the data as presented.  You’ll find it usually invalidates itself.

Nowhere is that more true than in a study published this month by Mercer, Staywell and British Petroleum (“BP America”) in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM).   As we’ll demonstrate, the results completely contradict Staywell’s own statements, and are also mathematically impossible.  Indeed, Mercer was a wise partner choice by BP America because their validations are often unconstrained by the limits of possibility.   For instance, they validated massive savings both for infants in a North Carolina Medicaid program that did not enroll infants, and for a Georgia Medicaid disease management program that did not manage diseases, at least according to the FBI.

Along those lines, let’s see what happens when one compares the JOEM conclusion — that the Staywell wellness program for BP America achieved almost $20,000,000 in savings on 20,343 BP participants after only two short years – to the limits of possibility.

It turns out this overall savings claim of $1,000/person would require completely wiping out wellness-sensitive medical events (heart attacks, diabetes events etc.) not just on those 20,000+ people, but also on perhaps 40,000 of their closest friends.  The authors elected not to disclose the change in wellness-sensitive medical events across the entire eligible population, perhaps because they were embarrassed by the size of the decline, if indeed those events declined at all.

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Obesity and the AMA

Last week’s announcement by the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) council on science and public health cheered me. It said that the AMA should not designate obesity a disease, because doing so was unlikely to improve health outcomes and because the most widely utilized obesity metric — the body mass index or BMI — was simplistic and flawed. It’s a reasonable and principled stance, which should have been the first clue that it was doomed.

The AMA’s board and delegates proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by ignoring their own scientific council and labeling obesity as a disease. To be clear, the decision is almost purely symbolic; it has no legal force or authority, but it does up the ante in the debate with insurers and employers over what care elements should be covered and reimbursed. In other words, this is about money. Obesity: the new ATM for the health care system.

I’m just curious about where physicians have been for the past, oh, thirty years. Since 1980, as Americans have morphed into the fattest culture in the history of Western civilization, physician supply per 100,000 population has increased about 50%. Per capita medical care spending has increased from roughly $1,100 to over $8,400. 1980 was also the last time that roughly half of US adults were normal weight. Now, only about a quarter of American adults have a normal BMI.

Were US physicians blindfolded as they encountered patients growing incrementally larger with each visit? Were they keeping their mouths shut about the obvious — gee, I really think you should get out for some walking and limit the snacks — because they were awaiting a chance to make more creative use of ICD and CPT codes?

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The Wellness Game: The Employer As the New Parent

Eat your vegetables.  Turn off the TV.  Go outside and play.  Go to bed on time.  These four imperatives were once amongst the core messages delivered to children by their parents and neighbors, a setting of behavioral parameters that people intuitively expected would help to produce healthy, well-balanced kids.  We’re not so good at this anymore.  Like so many other behaviors that animate the phrase “personal responsibility”, in the face of economic and demographic tumult we have decided to pass the buck on them in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  We now want employers to handle them, and health-contingent wellness is the final step in the ascendancy of the employer as the new parent.

Employers find themselves teaching employees how to read and write effectively, do math, be polite, how to eat in the presence of others, and even how to sleep better.  Why not throw at their feet the notion that employers should coerce workers into intrusive and dubious health-contingent workplace wellness strategies that are easy as pie for the healthiest, but far more difficult for the less fortunate who are, ostensibly, the ones who need the most help?  This is not why most people start businesses (unless, of course, you’re a wellness vendor).  It certainly is not why people devote themselves to work, which is supposed to be for securing (hopefully) individual and familial prosperity and experiencing the unique contribution to personal dignity that comes from purposeful endeavors.

US employers are not responsible for the chronic disease crisis; truth be told, their sufferance of the costs of many wellness-sensitive events is limited because the majority of the medical catastrophes that health-contingent wellness programs promise to prevent (such as heart attacks, strokes, and many cancers) happen predominantly in older people who have mostly left the work force. Employers have been caught up in the maelstrom of demographic, industrial, and technological changes just like the rest of us.  Yet,  not only do we actively seek their participation in fishing expeditions such as health-contingent workplace wellness programs, some of them jump in with both feet.  This should help to remind you that your CEO might just be the one who graduated at the bottom of his class.

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