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More employers using wellness programs to reduce health care costs: Analysis

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More employers are turning to wellness programs to reduce their health care costs despite what they see as significant barriers to accurately measuring those programs' results, according to a Willis North America survey.

Sixty percent of the more than 1,200 employers surveyed in the “2011 Willis Health and Productivity Survey” reported having some form of wellness program in place, up from 43% in 2010.

The 2011 survey results also indicate a rise in the number of companies using aggressive wellness tactics such as health risk assessments, biometric screenings and financial incentives, particularly among midsize employers. Forty-nine percent of companies with less than 1,000 employees characterized their wellness program as “intermediate” or “comprehensive,” compared with 37% in 2010.

However, the survey indicated, many companies are still struggling to determine exactly how their wellness initiatives have affected health care costs or overall workforce health. More than 40% of respondents said it was hard to differentiate between the influence of wellness programs vs. other factors affecting costs, cited insufficient data, or said they did not have staffing or resources to sufficiently study the results.

“Wellness programs continue to evolve and it is encouraging to see more organizations initiate programs despite economic pressures and continuing challenges in accurately measuring outcomes and results,” Jennifer Price, An Atlanta-based senior consultant at Willis Human Capital Practice, said Monday in a statement.

The 2011 study also found a greater percentage of employers offering cash and other financial incentives based on program participation and completion of certain activities or fitness goals. Forty percent of respondents offered cash rewards tied to completion of a health risk assessments, and 41% offered reductions of employee health care premiums in exchange for completion of a biometric screening.

In 2010, 33% of companies offered cash for health risk assessments, and 20% of companies offered to reduce employee premiums for biometric screenings.

A small percentage—5%—of companies have begun requiring employees to submit to health risk assessments and biometric screenings to qualify for employer-sponsored health coverage in addition to other incentives, the survey said. Those companies indicated that the coverage requirement was the most effective means of driving participation.