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Worth of wellness programs questioned

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Your bosses want you to eat your broccoli, hit the treadmill and pledge you'll never puff on a cigarette. But a new study raises doubts that workplace wellness programs save the company money.

In what's being called the most rigorous look yet inside the wellness trend, independent researchers tracked the program at a major St. Louis hospital system for two years. Hospitalizations for employees and family members dropped dramatically, by 41 percent overall for six major conditions. But increased outpatient costs erased those savings.

The study in Monday's issue of the journal Health Affairs has implications for a debate taking place at companies around the country: How much pressure can you put on workers to quit smoking, lose weight, and get exercise before it turns into health discrimination?

Most major companies have wellness programs, and smaller firms are signing up. President Obama's health overhaul law allows employers to expand rewards and penalties, provided workers are given a path to address lifestyle issues that could undermine their health.

The new study provides an in-depth look at the experience of BJC HealthCare, a hospital system that in 2005 started a comprehensive program linked to insurance discounts. BJC employs 28,000 people and provides health insurance for about 40,000, including family members. The majority participated in the wellness program.

The study tallied BJC's medical costs before the wellness program and for two years after and the results were counter-intuitive: A surprisingly large drop in hospitalizations for six conditions targeted by the wellness program but increased costs for medications and outpatient visits.

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