The Department of Labor has issued new guidelines concerning the wellness provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that relate to the use of financial incentives, and the Office of Health Plan Standards and Compliance Assistance is seeking public comment. This document proposes “amendments to regulations, consistent with the Affordable Care Act, regarding nondiscriminatory wellness programs in group health coverage." These regulations increase rewards for wellness participation or outcomes from 20 to 30% or up to 50% related to reducing tobacco use. (Federal register)
In the past several years, StayWell Health Management has published several studies concerning the use of financial incentives in wellness programs, so my colleagues, Drs. David Anderson, David Gregg, and I, felt obliged to offer some reactions to the proposed new language. All public comments will be posted at: http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/. By way of summary, we commended the department for its painstakingly earnest attempt to placate the detractors of the original proposal who believe that incentives could too readily become a subterfuge for insurance underwriting. Still, we believe their attempt to divide incentives into participation based or health contingent models may well shed more heat than light on the matter.
The proposed regulations regarding a health-contingent wellness program include a provision that appears to say members must be offered the total reward even when they have no medical condition that would make it unreasonably difficult to meet the health standard or medically inadvisable to attempt to do so, based solely on meeting a participation-based alternative standard. StayWell believes this effectively negates any substantive programmatic difference between a participation-based and health-contingent wellness program. Participation in a wellness program by an individual is, in effect, a default option for anyone who is not inclined to make an effort at even making reasonable progress toward the standard, much less achieve it. In effect, the health-contingent wellness program is fundamentally a participation-based program with a provision that allows an employer to waive the participation requirement for individuals who already meet the health standard. Read more »
As a baby boomer moving through middle age into the unspeakable age that follows “middle,” I was encouraged to read an article in the British Medical Journal that states that for seniors and super seniors, healthy behaviors that include regular exercise, not smoking, maintaining a normal Body Mass Index, and having a rich or moderate social network led to significant increases in longevity. From the study:
“Even after age 75 lifestyle behaviours such as not smoking and physical activity are associated with longer survival," the study authors write. "A low risk profile can add five years to women's lives and six years to men's. These associations, although attenuated, were also present among the oldest old (≥85 years) and in people with chronic conditions."
This study affirms the benefits of lifestyle and healthy behaviors for the hundreds of millions of people who are in or are entering their golden years in the United States and across the industrialized world. With these “prescriptions” or interventions, there is no need for elaborate quality-adjusted life year studies or comparative-effectiveness research to justify hundred-thousand-dollar sickness care interventions! The ROI is compelling.
Shaping or modifying our own personal behaviors or effecting positive health behaviors in others, whether as a health plan, an employer, or as clinicians, is no piece of cake but is well worth the effort.
Steven R. Peskin, MD, MBA, FACP, is associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
The Affordable Care Act codified the worksite wellness exemption to the federal medical underwriting provisions in the group health plan market. This means companies are allowed to use an “outcomes-based” incentive model that provides financial rewards for those who satisfy a prescribed health standard such as a BMI of less than 30 or who meet a “reasonable alternative standard” or obtain a waiver from their physician. What some see as “rewards” others view as penalties or surcharges and, given the absence of evidence to confirm the role of such incentives in actually improving population health, the new provisions have unleashed a debate about the ethics and putative effectiveness of the new provisions.
Many view the current and more common use of participation-based incentives as too easily exploited and insufficient to break intractable health habits. Others see the emerging trend toward use of outcomes-based incentives as draconian and a subterfuge for insurance cost shifting. I think the wisdom is in the middle and, with my colleague David Anderson, have argued that we need move beyond these opposing views by proposing an alternative "progress-based" incentive model that we believe can increase employee accountability and engagement while preserving fairness and equity in the use of incentives: “Finding common ground in the use of financial incentives” (http://www.ajhpcontents.org/doi/pdf/10.4278/ajhp.26.1.c2)
In contrast to the commentaries from the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society in the above link that argue that incentives should be confined to participation only, we believe that a “progress-based” incentive strategy will provide a participant-centered, risk-adjusted and safer approach to achieving population health goals.
In a “progress-based” model, the attainment of a reasonable individually-tailored health goal, such as losing 10 percent of body weight, offers participants who fail to satisfy the health standard with an opportunity to earn incentives regardless of how far from the recommended health standard they begin their journey. Confining rewards to only those who hit the outcome target risks alienating those at highest risk who have the furthest to go and generate the highest costs to the organization. A “progress-based” approach, on the other hand, has the potential to engage everyone in setting achievable, measurable targets that yield health improvements.
What are your thoughts on the best use of financial incentives? The new provisions of the Affordable Care Act seem to signal a conviction that employees' accountability for their health should be bolstered. Has Congress inadvertently put employers in the role of insurance cost shifting?
Paul E. Terry, Ph.D., CEO, StayWell Health Management