The wellness ROI question

A recap of an EBRI forum from last December reopens the old question of wellness programs and whether or not they provide value. Here is an excerpt:

Do wellness programs work? Yes, says Beth Umland, head of Mercer’s health and benefits research unit. While controversy persists, “data is starting to accumulate that show that these programs actually are cost effective.” Among those employers that have tried to measure the ROI for wellness programs, “about three-quarters say it’s been very successful,” Umland continued. Pam French, director of benefits for Boeing, Inc., also endorsed the value of wellness programs.

Taking the opposing view was Bruce Pyenson, a consulting actuary with Milliman. Disease management and other wellness programs don’t work, he said. “The theory that you can spend more now to save money later in health care is just wrong. If you want to spend less in health care, you should spend less in health care,” according to Pyenson.

Pyenson’s perspective is actually a bit more nuanced than just that—but the point is that it becomes difficult to find ROI when many wellness programs require getting people with very few annual healthcare claims to engage the system. Given this dynamic, certain programs work better than others.