The series of unflatteringarticles published in Health Affairs early this year – the first unfavorable press wellness had ever received in a top tier policy journal — turned out to be a harbinger of what became the wellness industry’s summer of discontent. Perhaps in error, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) also drifted into the sea of credibility on wellness early in 2013 by publishing a meta-analysis of the industry’s claims of economic success.
The analysis, by researchers at Tufts, destroys the industry mythology of respectability by noting that out of over 2,000 papers published in the world’s medical literature, only 10 (0.5%) are worth discussing and that discussion leads essentially nowhere. Not surprisingly, like our essays here and in Health Affairs, the Tufts work has been universally ignored by the wellness true believers.
Starting with those articles, and especially over the last four months, those true believers have lost control of the dialog — starting right here with THCB, which gets credit as the first major regular source of objective news not generated by the wellness industry’s propaganda apparatus.
June brought the RAND report, our Wall Street Journal op-ed, and Cracking Health Costs. Unlike Health Affairs, some HR administrators have actually read those publications. These developments left them asking uncomfortable questions of an industry that hitherto had filtered the information that its customers received through the JOEM and the Journal of Health Promotion, the industry’s de facto house organs that between them in thirty years have published fewer articles concluding wellness doesn’t work (just that single meta-analysis mentioned above) than Health Affairs has in 2013 alone.
But it wasn’t until July that the wheels fell off the wellness bus, due to four self-inflicted wounds that did more to diminish the industry’s carefully cultivated albeit totally undeserved patina than anything we could have written. Atoning for its brief foray into accuracy, JOEM published an article showing $20-million in savings for British Petroleum’s (BP) wellness program, 100 times what the vendor, Staywell, claims on its own website to be possible.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
There was no participation/self-selection bias because outcomes were measured on all Iowa Medicaid members.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.