Elements of Obamacare specifically support employer programs designed to improve the health of employees
Who would have believed that, after passage of the Affordable Care Act back in 2010, a fast-growing trend would be that of employers spending more money to develop employee wellness programs and offer medical clinics within corporate facilities? At a minimum, this development creates new opportunities for clinical laboratories to be direct providers of medical laboratory testing services to corporations.
Employee Wellness Programs Incorporate Medical Laboratory Testing
There is a simple reason why employers are jumping on the employee wellness bandwagon. Evidence demonstrates that incentivizing employees to live a healthier lifestyle can help reduce the cost of providing health insurance. It can also contribute to less absenteeism and increased employee productivity, both of which are important benefits to employers.
New data affirming this trend can be found in the 2013 Health Care Survey conducted annually by AON. AON is a global re-insurer that provides risk management services, insurance, and human resources solutions. About half of all U.S. employers now offer employee wellness programs, according to a recent study by Rand Corp., an independent think tank based in Santa Monica, California.
Wellness Industry Is Now a $6 Billion Business
All this growth has propelled the wellness industry into a $6-billion per year business. At least 500 vendors, including major health insurers, offer employer wellness programs, according to a story published by Reuters News.
Additionally, digital wellness start-ups such as Omada Health, EveryMove, 100Plus, and Audax Health are developing a variety of enticements to get employees to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Programs offered through these companies use a combination of rewards, social networking, and coaching, noted a story published by Forbes.com.
Affordable Care Act Expected to Boost Employer Wellness Participation
Further, Obamacare may further boost the number of employers either offering wellness programs, or providing employees with more lucrative incentives to improve their health than are now offered, noted a report published on Hartfordbusiness.com.
“This gives employers flexibility to design wellness programs that align and reward employee behavior,” noted Mike Thompson, a principal with the global accounting and consulting firm PwC (NAR: PWC).
New federal healthcare rules that go into effect January 1, 2014, will further encourage employers to offer wellness programs. These new rules will allow employers to increase the reward or penalty—which typically involves discounted or higher premiums—for employees who meet or fail to meet standard health benchmarks, such as normal cholesterol or weight.
Studies Reveal Strong Employer Commitment to Employee Wellness
Forbes.com published another story about the AON survey, which involved 800 large- to medium-sized employers that are clients of AON’s human resources consultancy. AON determined that 83% of companies surveyed offer employees incentives to participate in wellness programs.
While the large majority of employers surveyed offer employees rewards for improving their health, only 5% impose a penalty for not meeting health benchmarks and just 16% provide both rewards and penalties.
The AON survey also found that:
56% of employers require employees to actively participate in health programs, comply with medications, or participate in activities like health coaching;
24% offer incentives for progress toward or attainment of acceptable ranges for biometric measures, such as blood pressure, body mass index, blood sugar and cholesterol;
58% plan to impose consequences on employees who do not take appropriate actions to improve health;
34% are interested in tying incentives to program designs that require a focus on health year round, such as completing a progressive physical activity program that achieves the recommended 150 minutes per week of cardiovascular exercise over a certain period of time;
22% are interested in using game theories and concepts to improve existing programs or ideas; and
20% percent are interested in rewarding employees at specific work locations who meet predetermined criteria.
Typical Components of Employer Wellness Programs
Analysis of the Rand Employer Survey identified four components that typically comprise an employee wellness program.
Health screenings, including health risk assessments (HRAs) and clinical tests and biometric screenings, such as blood pressure (BP) and body measurement index (BMI);
Preventive interventions, such as smoking cessation and weight loss/diabetes management to address health risks and prevent disease exacerbation;
Health promotion benefits, such as onsite vaccinations, healthy food options in the employee cafeteria, cash reimbursement for fitness programs.
Additionally, most programs place heavy emphasis on smoking cessation and weight management programs and offer the greatest incentives for participation. As shown above, some of these employee wellness programs will incorporate clinical laboratory testing as a way to monitor the employee’s progress toward positive goals.
An example is the multifaceted wellness program offered by The Phoenix Cos. (NYSE: PNX), another Hartford-based insurer, for its own workers. Suzette Louro, Assistant Vice President of the company’s Employee Services, noted in the Hartfordbusiness.com story that her company offers employees free health assessments, biometric screenings, onsite yoga classes, nutritional counseling and health education seminars.
Phoenix, in fact, offers employees up to $375 in cash reimbursements or incentives for participating in various wellness activities, and does not impose penalties–choosing to “offer the carrot without the stick,” she explained. As a result, about 75% of Phoenix employees participate in annual HRA screenings and 60% get biometric screenings.
Wellness Trend Presents Opportunities for Lab Professionals
As healthcare moves into nontraditional settings, the emphasis on wellness and prevention will increase, with employers investing significant amounts of money to improve employee health and hold down healthcare costs.
For clinical laboratories and pathology groups, growth in employer wellness programs presents a golden opportunity. That’s because clinical laboratories can provide screening services and pathologists and laboratory scientists could offer expert medical consultations to help individual employees progress in efforts to improve their health, particularly those with chronic conditions.
—By Patricia Kirk