University wellness health program unfair, unhelpful

A new health incentive program for University staff fails to treat everyone fairly.

Eric Best

In January, the University of Minnesota began implementing a program that offers financial incentives in the form of insurance premium reductions for faculty and other staff members who make efforts to improve their physical health. Through the University Office of Human Resources, the Wellness Program allows employees and their family members to participate in University-sanctioned activities to earn points that will accumulate in their Wellness Points Bank.

If an individual or family accrues 300 or 400 points throughout the year of 2012 they will receive a $300 or $400 reduction in their insurance premium, respectively. Points are awarded in varying amounts for various activities and practices that encourage “wellness.” For example, activities include biometric health screenings and a Healthy Pregnancy program. An individual can even attend and complete a nine-part Weight Watchers program, which will earn them 150 Wellness Points.

Like America’s long-standing approach to diet and nutrition, the Wellness Points system feels like a calorie-counting approach to health, which attempts to boil large, complex socioeconomic issues down to a question of personal responsibility. Obesity and other health issues have become increasingly large issues in Minnesota — currently 63.1 percent of adults in Minnesota are overweight or obese, nearly matching the national average.

Even though the rise in obesity may have been caused by a diverse combination of different issues, from industrial agriculture to an increase in costs of living, the University’s new Wellness Points Program does not attack these broader socioeconomic issues but rather places responsibility on individual staff and faculty to improve their own health and lose weight. The program is inflexible for staff or faculty who struggle to lead a healthy lifestyle because they do not make enough money, are simply too old or are expected to work long hours. For them, the Wellness Points Program only serves to emphasize their position as a second-class citizen in the workplace, with bodies that fail to conform to the normative ideal of health and responsibility. Thus, those who earn less and might have to work other jobs or lack the time to participate in University-sanctioned wellness activities are at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier counterparts. Additionally, the program can unfairly give advantage to certain groups of employees over others, as financial rewards are more easily achieved by households with multiple persons who can work together to earn points, which discriminates against faculty and staff members without a partner or family.

Another problem with the program is that it seems much more apt to reward those who are leading less healthy lifestyles but take steps to change than those who already live healthily. For instance, you can earn 150 points for the completion of a Blue Cross/Blue Shield smoking cessation program, yet you only receive 25 points for already being a nonsmoker — the same amount you are awarded for getting an annual flu shot. If you participate in the bicycle commuter program and you are a nonsmoker, you can rack up a whopping 75 Wellness Points. This seems ridiculous considering that one can earn 100 points for merely having an assessment of their general health at Boynton. So essentially, the Wellness Points Program will award you a $300 reduction in your annual insurance premium just for finding out your individual level of health, yet when you seem to have already made choices such as not to smoke or to ride your bicycle to campus, your reward is negligible.

The Wellness Points Program mimics the Weight Watchers points system in the way that it encourages members to use a quantitative incentive program rather than offering rewards based on qualitative assessment of members’ health. As much as health is a quantitative science, an individual’s health is also heavily influenced by emotional and psychological factors such as stress, something common in a workplace. The Wellness Program’s guidelines fail to acknowledge these aspects of an individual’s health, which can be crucial to even quantitative measurements such as Body Mass Index or weight. Instead, wellness programs focus on cholesterol or blood pressure, which can be influenced by genes more than an individual’s health choices.

In the wider interest of health, it seems more appropriate to try to challenge the larger problems influencing an individual’s weight or physical health factors. Employee health programs, similar to the University’s wellness program, are a new trend in the incorporation of community health in the workplace. Some programs have been met with lawsuits and lawyers advising clients to steer clear from wellness programs because of possible discrimination against people who are simply perceived as unhealthy, overweight or obese, who did not receive their insurance premium reduction and were treated differently as a result. Other programs have been challenged by employees who feel uncomfortable relinquishing their private health information to their employer.

The problem boils down to the fact that wellness programs involve an array of wider, complex issues that ultimately create an unfair experience between employees. A University professor’s health is only influenced so much by their individual choices, thus having a similar program with similar goals for every employee seems inappropriate, especially in the workplace. Though the program is voluntary, it creates an environment that idolizes a certain type of employee over another. The University’s Wellness program may be in its infantile stage, but it is clear that these problems will develop if the program does not change.