Employees in the wellness program had to complete a health risk assessment that included height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and other measurements. They also signed a pledge to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Smokers had to get help to quit. Spouses were also required to sign the health pledge and, if they smoked, get help.
The study tallied up BJC's medical costs before the wellness program and for two years after. It also compared those costs with expenses of two other big local employers that did not have wellness programs. That was done to control for the possible impact of new drugs or medical innovations.
The results were counter-intuitive: A surprisingly large drop in hospitalizations for the six conditions targeted by the wellness program, but increased costs for medications and outpatient visits. When those were added to the cost of the wellness initiative itself, "it is unlikely that the program saved money," the study concluded.
BJC President Steven Lipstein said he doesn't dispute the conclusion, but he remains committed to the wellness program and would invite the researchers to take another look now.
Is the program saving money? "I do not know that," said Lipstein. "I can tell you that our health benefit expenses go up every year."
Lipstein said encouraging employees to make healthy lifestyle decisions and rewarding those who do reflects corporate values, not just the bottom line.
"It's not easy to change human health outcomes in the short term," he added. "When you make an investment in wellness and prevention you shouldn't expect an immediate return."