Ford Gets on Wellness Bandwagon—Despite Evidence Such Programs Don’t Work

Voluntary exercise programs like this one in downtown Detroit can have all sorts of benefits, but the jury's in on employer-sponsored wellness programs: they don't improve health. Photo:

The Detroit News reports that Ford and the United Auto Workers are negotiating a “wellness” program where workers will pay more if they don't meet certain wellness goals:

[S]ources said the program is similar to one already in place for Ford’s U.S. salaried employees. As part of that program, some health insurance plans reward employees with lower premiums if they make lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and losing weight.

Strictly voluntary, of course—till 2015.

“Health initiatives” was one of the vague items left for further discussion after the 2011 Ford-UAW contract—just like the slippery 2009 language that GM and the UAW used to force two-tier at GM’s Lake Orion plant.

As Labor Notes has reported, these wellness programs shift costs onto workers—as well as invade their privacy.

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And now we find out that the programs don’t make people healthier and don’t even save money. From the Washington Post:

The reduced spending on hospitalizations was, however, offset by an increase in spending on pharmaceutical products and out-patient trips to the doctor. The wellness program, at least in its nascent stages, changed what care individuals received but not how much it ultimately cost….

Horwitz worries that the real way to save money under wellness programs is by charging a premium to unhealthy workers, who might not even have higher health-care costs to begin with.

One big study of 600 corporations found that in wellness programs

  • Participants lost an average of only 1 pound a year for three years.
  • There were no significant reductions in total cholesterol levels.
  • There was some evidence of successful smoking cessation, but only “in the short term.”
  • Savings were statistically insignificant: $2.38/month the first year, $3.46/month in year 5.
  • Reduction in cost or use of emergency departments or hospital care was also statistically insignificant.

Yet "wellness" is now a $6 billion industry, annually, with perhaps 500 companies selling the programs to eager employers.

Wellness programs are like all the “jointness” programs we have seen, in the auto industry and elsewhere: they generate a fortune for consultants, they don’t do what they say they’re going to do—but they do end up shafting the worker.