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Employers spend more on wellness programs, penalize employees less

Whether employers can reap financial benefits from wellness remains to be seen

As employers increase their spending on employee wellness programs and lessen the penalties for not participating in the programs, do they hinder their overall return on investment? It's hard to say for sure.

In 2015, nearly 80 percent of employers offered wellness programs, and they will spend an average of $693 per employee, up from 2014's average of $594 per employee, according to a report from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health. Companies with more than 20,000 employees spend the most on these programs--$878 in 2015, compared to $717 in 2014.

Of the employers who offer the three most popular incentive-based programs for 2015--biometric screenings, health risk assessments and physical activity programs--only 5 percent will levy a disincentive for not getting a biometric screening, down 11 percent from last year. Only 6 percent will levy a disincentive for not taking a health risk assessment, down 12 percent from last year.

Additionally, not one of the 121 companies surveyed assess disincentives for not partaking in physical activity programs, Healthcare Payer News pointed out. However, 17 percent penalize employees who smoke.

The Fidelity report comes on the heels of research from the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), a project of the Population Health Alliance. "While some employees are grateful for the opportunity to improve their health and for access to programs that will help them do so," the report said, "others find the programs intrusive, coercive and are otherwise simply not interested in participating in the program."

Employees increasingly face fines if they do not participate in wellness programs, particularly those that involve sharing personal data, FierceHealthPayer previously reported. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)--which unsucccessfully sued Honeywell over its mandate that program participants take biometric and medical tests, saying the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act--has argued that wellness programs work better when they are voluntary.

Voluntary or mandatory, employers who offer wellness programs may not get the results they want. The problem is that most employers did not invest in wellness programs to make their organization a happy place, a recent Health Affairs blog post mentioned. They did so hoping to receive a hefty ROI. That hasn't been happening--the HERO report found that wellness programs come to $1.50 per covered member per month with savings of just under $1 per member per month. 

For more:
- here's the Fidelity report
- check out the Healthcare Payer News article
- read the HERO report (.pdf)
- here's the Health Affairs blog post

Related Articles:
Feds sue Honeywell over wellness program that requires blood, medical tests
For wellness programs, choice is often sharing personal health data or paying a fine
Judge: Wellness programs can penalize non-participants
For today's employees, it's wellness programs or bust
Redefining wellness as well-being could help wellness programs succeed