Hospital wellness program didn't lower costs

Wellness programs do not appear to lower overall healthcare costs, a new study shows, leading researchers to conclude the Affordable Care Act's wellness program incentives won't significantly reduce healthcare spending.

The study, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, looked at a wellness program launched in 2005 by the St. Louis-based BJC Healthcare hospital system, which required employees wanting access to the system's most generous health plan to participate in the program.

To participate in the company's "Gold" health insurance plan, employees had to complete a web-based health risk assessment including blood pressure, serum glucose, height, weight, cholesterol readings and waist circumference. They also had to sign a pledge promising to eat healthy food and exercise regularly, and enroll in a smoking cessation program if they smoked.

The hospital system, for its part, held health fairs that provided physician referrals. Moreover, employees participating in the wellness program received discounted premiums in addition to access to the most generous plan.

While hospitalizations for conditions targeted by the program fell 41 percent compared with a nonparticipating employee group, the health system saw no significant decrease in other hospitalizations, according to the study. At the same time, inpatient costs fell as other expenses increased.

The result: BJC Healthcare did not save money, at least not in the short term.

In addition to raising questions about the cost-saving assumptions of the Affordable Care Act, the findings come at a time when more and more hospitals are offering employee wellness programs. The belief has been that wellness programs drive down healthcare costs.

To learn more:
- read the study abstract (subscription required for the full study)