The $8 Million National Healthy Worksite Program – Will It Make Any Difference? Probably Not

Introduction: An Experimental Initiative for Worker Health Promotion

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has placed a bet on the corporate health promotion business with an $8 million injection of funds made possible by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It is called the National Healthy Worksite Wellness Program or NHWP. The goal is to reduce chronic disease among Americans.
The three areas of emphasis are nutrition, exercise and smoking cessation.

Some might view the goal of less chronic disease and the nature of the three-part emphasis as consistent with and likely to include positive REAL wellness, activities that promote high quality of life outcomes. I would not be among them. Some might view any distinctions between reducing chronic disease and advancing quality of life as quibbling over semantics. I think the difference matters a lot, for it reflects an unfortunate fact, namely, that the new worksite initiative is likely to consist of more medical screenings, more preaching against bad habits and more lamentations about the perils of high risk indicators.

When I first heard about NHWP, I had hoped it might bring more education, incentives and support for personal effectiveness. I hoped for goals addressed to increased happiness, life satisfaction and similar elements addressed to the art and science of advancing reason/exuberance/athleticism and liberty. Perhaps this will have to wait for another day, another program. But, maybe not. Let’s look closer at the announcements about the NHWP.

The CDC, VHM and the Participating Communities

CDC will be working with 104 organizations; the program will be administered by Viridian Health Management, henceforth VHM.

VHM describes itself as a healthcare company focused on improving individual and population health through health coaching, an integrative approach to wellness, powerful technology and analytics. VHM announced the selection of the 104 employer organizations that will participate in the NHWP located within the eight counties or “participating communities.”

The eight counties are as follows: Buchanan County, Mo.; Harris County, Texas; Kern County, Calif.; Marion County, Ind.; Philadelphia County, Pa.; Pierce County, Wash.; Shelby County, Tenn.; and Somerset County, Maine. The basis of selection consisted primarily of the presence in each area of high rates of chronic disease.

Assessment

The NHWP program is a product of the double-edged sword ACA guidelines:

Early worksite wellness exercise program

Companies can charge workers with unhealthy lifestyles up to 30 percent more for medical insurance but they also must offer health improvement programs. Speaking of such swords, here’s a little good news, bad news courtesy of the Rand Corporation. As of 2010, 92 percent of employers with more than 200 employees offered wellness programs. That’s good. But, this is not – only 20 percent of employees participate! And this is worse – these programs have been found not to be effective in any event! In other words, it would not have mattered much if 100 percent of workers participated – they don’t work!

Actually, full participation would have mattered – costs would have been about five times greater.

As expressed in an article in Healthline News, the most targeted employee behaviors were exercising, smoking and losing weight-the same issues addressed by the new CDC program. Is that the kiss of death or what? Remember, these are the issues that attracted the participation of only 20 percent of workers and that did not work! (Source: Brian Krans, Workplace Wellness Programs: Do They Work? Healthline News, June 11, 2013.)

So much for more screenings, more preaching against bad habits and more lamentations about the perils of high risk indicators.

I do hope the CDC folks expect more of VHM for their $8 million under the NHWP initiative. REAL wellness, anyone?

Be weller than well, if you can and at least look on the bright side, to the extent possible.