Should You Join a Corporate Wellness Program?

Deductible

Employers, health insurers, and life insurers are rolling out tracked wellness programs in a hope that using “nudge”-style methods can help reduce the costs generated by the people they cover. Health and life insurers have historically collected some medical information, usually records or exam results at the time of application, but newer programs offer discounts for complying with tracking options. The programs are defined as voluntary, and offer a way to get an additional benefit in exchange for sharing personal information, a bit like a store loyalty card. Do they work? Maybe. Either way, they’re out there, so here are some things to think about.

Your basic question is “Is this a worthwhile compensation for the personal information I share?”

Is the program in compliance with privacy and other regulations? The Affordable Care Act updated the guidelines for wellness programs, and GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act) prohibits collecting genetic (family history) information. Wellness programs are also required to respect medical or disability limitations, and programs may not impose penalties for nonparticipation. In short: the program should offer carrots only, and no sticks. (There is some skepticism about how this plays out, though.)

Is the benefit valuable to you? Rewards can vary from mentions in newsletters, small merchandise, or gym-membership reimbursements to discounts on policy premiums, contributions to health savings accounts, or cash payments. Weigh the value of your information against the reward.

Are you comfortable with the level of disclosure? Program requirements vary from occasional health questionnaires to wearing a tracker that automatically uploads daily step counts to getting cholesterol, glucose, and other tests periodically. (Keep in mind that program offerings could change, with implied pressure to accept new requirements.)

Are you already a nonsmoker who eats reasonably well and gets regular exercise? This may make it sound like you wouldn’t need the wellness program, but in fact already being successful with healthy behaviors is probably the best predictor of benefit from a corporate wellness program: the program could both reward you for what you already do and provide a touch of external accountability to keep you on track.

The wider availability of fitness trackers is accelerating this trend by providing a way for programs to verify some kinds of behavior change in a way that is inexpensive and acceptable to employees. Most of these devices are limited to very simple measurements — and a daily step count is not a particularly sensitive piece of information. (It’s also susceptible to system-gaming.) But sensor technology will improve, and over time wearables will more reliably measure more, perhaps in a way that is difficult or impossible for users to work around or decline to share. This is a good time to get familiar with some of the issues around these programs so you can participate in them (or not) with eyes open.

Previously: “How Does Your Fitness Tracker Work?

Image by Danny Shanahan, published in the New Yorker

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