Wellness programs grow more popular with businesses


CATHERINE LUCEY and TOM MURPHY

Associated Press

That little voice nagging you to put down the cake and lace up the running shoes is increasingly coming from your employer and is likely to grow louder with a looming change under the federal health care overhaul.

More companies are starting or expanding wellness programs that aim to reduce their medical costs by improving their employees’ health. They’re asking workers to take physical exams, complete detailed health assessments and focus on controlling conditions such as diabetes. Along with that, many companies also are dangling the threat of higher monthly insurance premiums to prod workers into action.

The Affordable Care Act is one reason the programs are spreading. The federal law calls for a 40 percent tax on expensive benefit plans starting in 2018, and many companies that offer employer-based coverage already have begun looking for ways to lower costs and avoid that tax.

“It is a very powerful … visible wake-up call to all employers,” said Helen Darling, chief executive of the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit organization that represents large employers on health care issues.

Businesses see wellness programs as a win for themselves and their workers. But studies have shown that the programs have a limited ability to reduce costs. They also raise concerns about privacy and discrimination against older workers or those who are more likely to have chronic conditions.

Penalties also can hit lower-wage workers harder than they would executives because premiums already consume a larger portion of those workers’ paychecks.

“The top-line concern is that it has a huge potential to be discriminatory,” said Lydia Mitts, a health policy analyst with the nonprofit Families USA.

Benefits consultants say federal regulations help guard against that. Companies can be penalized under the overhaul for offering coverage that is considered unaffordable.

Businesses also are required to offer alternatives that help workers avoid penalties like a higher premium because they can’t meet a wellness program goal.

Despite employee concerns, the idea of prevention as a way to reduce health care costs has been largely embraced by employers, who provide the most common form of health insurance in the U.S.


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