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Health premium discount incentives not a weight-losing proposition


Most large employers offer financial incentives to employees who participate in the company wellness program.

But a new study found that offering discounts on health insurance premiums for employees who meet weight loss goals is unlikely to yield results.

The study, published Tuesday in Health Affairs by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, found that offering a $550 financial incentive to obese workers who participated in the employee weight loss program did not lead to better weight loss outcomes.

To test the effectiveness of premium incentives on promoting weight loss, 197 obese participants in a workplace weight loss program were given a goal to lose 5% of their weight in 12-month period.

Participants were assigned to different types of incentive programs, including health insurance premium adjustments and a lottery-based financial incentive, in which daily lottery winners could only collect the reward if they had also met the weight loss goal at the time.

Premium adjustments were either promised at the beginning of the following year or at the first pay period after meeting the weight loss goal. Each type of incentive was valued at $550.

Another group of participants was promised no incentive for meeting the goal.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers said they found no significant changes in the average weight loss of the participants in any group.

Those in the group promised delayed premium adjustments lost an average 1.2 pounds; those promised an immediate premium adjustment lost an average 1.4 pounds; and those in the lottery incentive group lost an average 1 pound.

Those offered no incentive showed virtually no change at the end of the study period.

The 5% weight loss goal was achieved by only 37 participants, according to the study.

“More than 80% of large employers use financial incentives for health promotion. Many use health insurance premium adjustments, but these incentives are often delayed and, even when they aren’t, they are typically hidden in paychecks along with other deductions and payments. That makes them less noticeable,” Dr. Mitesh Patel, study author and assistant professor of medicine and health care management in the Perelman School of Medicine and The Wharton School, said in a statement announcing the study results. “Our findings suggest that employers should consider testing designs alternative to the $550 premium-based incentives used in this study.”

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