Thursday, May 30, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 2

Outrage of the Week: corporate-defined health

Time for one of our regular weekly features, the Outrage of the Week.

This week, it's another assault on our privacy and another example of how corporate America wants to control more and more of our personal lives. Various corporations are demanding that employees meet certain health goals or face some sort of punishment.

For example, CVS, one of the country's largest pharmacy chains, expects its workers to go to their doctor and have them determine their height, weight, body fat, blood pressure, and other health indicators, then to allow that personal data to go not only to the insurance company but also to yet another company, one that provides benefits support to CVS.

CVS's health insurance plan will pay for this “wellness review,” but workers who don’t take part in this supposedly "voluntary" program will have to pay an annual $600 penalty on their insurance premiums - a meaning of the word "voluntary" of which I was previously unfamiliar.

Michelin North America is another one. The tire manufacturer plans to monitor employees’ Body Mass Indices, blood pressure, glucose levels, triglycerides, and waist sizes. If your waist size is larger than 35 inches for women, or 40 inches for men, or if other "metrics" fall outside of what the company decides is the “acceptable” range, penalties kick in that will cost you $1000 more per year for health care coverage. No word on if Michelin is planning on changing its corporate logo.

Other large companies including Walmart and Home Depot have similar policies.

Now remember, the whole idea of group health insurance, of any group insurance in fact, is to spread the risk over the whole population, population here meaning everyone in the group. Treating some members of the population differently based on particular characteristics denies the whole notion of group coverage.

But that's okay, really it is, because these corporations and others are, of course, claiming that all this is actually for the benefit of the employees, nothing at all to do with cutting benefits or advancing corporate profit margins, oh no, perish the thought. Michelin claims, for example, that the new policy “helps us help our employees.” Do it our way or pay $1000 a year. Just look at all we do for you!

CVS was even worse: A corporate flack claimed that “Our benefits program is evolving to help our colleagues engage more actively to improve their health and manage health-associated costs.” The company even labeled the "wellness review" as done "so that colleagues know their key health metrics in order to take action to improve their overall health." It's all for you, don't you see? That's why it'll cost you $600 a year if you don't go along: It's for you.

And by the way: colleagues? What kind of corporate-speak double-talk is that? I'm really sick of that business. "We're all colleagues here; we're all members of the team." Just for the fun of it, I looked up "colleague" in a thesaurus. This is what it said:

Main Entry: colleague - associate, fellow worker
Synonyms: aide, ally, buddy, chum, co-worker, coadjutor, cohort, collaborator, companion, compatriot, comrade, confederate, confrere, crony, friend, helper, pal, partner, teammate, workmate

You want to tell me where in that list would you fit in "bosses empowered to penalize you 600 bucks a year if you don't do what we say" as a synonym for "colleague?" No matter what BS they hand you, you are not your boss's "colleague."

CVS also lied about its program, saying it's “a common practice.” The company relied on a survey from 2011 that claimed that 80% of large employers who offer health benefits include a health assessment as part of that. But a 2012 survey found that only 18% of employers specifically asked their workers to take part in a health risk assessment, and only half of those penalized employees for failing to do so. What CVS is doing is not common practice.

On the other hand, it may not be common now, but it will become more common. Obamacare specifically allows employers to penalize workers who don’t participate in company wellness programs with higher premiums or higher deductibles or both. The same applies in some cases to workers who don’t meet certain health targets. As a result, another survey indicated that six in ten employers may decide to impose penalties on employees who fail to meet some arbitrary fitness criteria which they set.

So we have the invasion of privacy, we have the cold exercise of corporate power, we have the stigmatizing of people with physical conditions as if every problem was their own fault, their own personal failing, we have the penalizing people who fail to meet arbitrary standards, we have the cutting of benefits, we have the lies, we have the bull about "colleagues," and on top of all that we have the fact that these "wellness programs" just don't work!

The RAND Corporation performed a Congressionally-mandated analysis for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. And it found that wellness programs have at best a modest effect.

The report found, for instance, that people who participate in programs for weight loss lose an average of only one pound a year for three years. Participation "was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol level." Smoking-cessation programs only work "in the short term." Wellness programs did not catch warning signs of disease or prevent emergencies. No statistically significant decreases in cost or use of emergency department and hospital care was found.

Some experts not involved with the new report say even the modest benefits RAND found may be overstated for the population as a whole because most of these programs are still voluntary, which means that participants tend to be the most motivated people.

And this is not the only recent study to find much the same thing. This year researchers at the University of California conducted an analysis of dozens of existing studies of workplace wellness programs on behalf of the California state senate. It found that participating in work-based wellness programs does not lower blood pressure, does not lower blood sugar, does not lower cholesterol, and rarely leads to weight loss, and even where it did lead to weight loss, it was not always sustained. A different study out of the University of Arizona, also earlier this year, found no overall decrease in health care spending as a result of wellness programs.

Wellness programs are fine when they are voluntary. It's not the programs that are to blame, it's the absurd expectations placed on them and the demands placed on employees by corporations which think that their soaring profits have not soared enough and never will. So offering wellness programs in fine. But demanding participation, slashing employee benefits by punishing those not willing to participate and penalizing those who do not meet corporate-defined health standards, all while demanding our personal health information be handed over to yet another set of eyes, all for something that doesn't even work, that is truly an outrage.


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