Employer Biometrics – Worth the Cost For Health Care Cost Reduction?

As employers throughout United States are trying to stave off rising healthcare costs, there is much talk and lots of creative action to lower healthcare premiums and increase the health of our workforce. As many employers embark on a employer centric “wellness program”, often, they think that the most important first step is to encourage and provide an easy venue to gather basic biometrics… these often include, in addition to weight, BMI, and blood pressure, lipid panel and fasting cholesterol.

And it isn’t a bad idea. Getting individuals to “know their numbers” that can indicate a propensity for high risk diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc. can be critical to the individual personally engaging in his or her health and taking steps to getting healthier. In addition, because these prevalent high risk diseases are creating much of the health care costs for any employer, getting employees to know their numbers is a great first step to start a wellness program. However, running tests costs money. There are many terrific biometric companies who can now bring licensed health care professionals to the workplace to run these tests for employees…making it convenient and increase the odds that employees will participate. Depending on which tests are included, these tests will generally cost between $30-$50 per person tested.

But these costs add up. If you are leading a 200 person company, you don’t have an extra $10,000 to run tests that may or may not prompt healthy action by your employees. And to boot, for those employees who are getting their annual physicals as they should, their physician is likely repeating most of the same tests…the cost of which you are also paying, either through insurance premiums or through costs passed to you if you are self-insured. Some companies are also questioning the need and wellness advancement effectiveness of running annual biometrics programs. For employers with employees under the age of 35, many advise that it is purely a waste of money to test biometrics annually. There is just not much likelihood of significant change in measurement in a younger population.

And the bigger question about effectiveness is whether taking measurement in and of itself will actually prompt any action for individuals. Most smokers know they smoke and merely having their biometrics taken and taking a health risk questionnaire will likely have no impact on causing any behavior change whatsoever. Many companies who embark on a “wellness program” by taking biometrics and using a health risk questionnaire, thinking that employees make take it from there once they have information, are merely wasting their wellness investment unless those assessments are coupled with some tool that also inspires behavior change. People simply do not change their behavior as a result of information, they need some other motivation. And note, many Health Risk Questionnaires do not REQUIRE employees to put in specific biometrics.

You can get started with digital tools by having employees complete all the lifestyle information and estimate their biometric levels. In this way, if your digital tools also include behavior change modules, your employees can get going on behavior change, the REAL outcome that the employer wants to promote in the first place, right?!

Starting this fall, there is more reason to question the potential redundancy of employers paying for a separate biometrics gathering for their employees. Under new legislation, employer health plans MUST fully cover many preventive services and tests…meaning that even co-pays for these services will be going away for employees. So, employees will be further motivated to engage in preventive physicals and testing because it is “already paid for ” in the premiums that employees are sharing. A recent article in the New York Times explained this new legislative mandate: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/health/policy/15health.html?_r=3.

So back to the question: Should you, the employer gather the biometrics of your employees? Of course, it depends! Consider the following:

1) Are you ready for the doubling up of costs because those employees who are or will likely be engaged in annual physicals that you will likely be duplicating paying for tests?
2) Are you going to DO something with the biometrics to motivate employee behavior change?
3) Are annual biometrics really necessary for a majority of your employees due to the age range of your employee population?

Remember, it IS important to consider the goals of your wellness initiative and exactly WHAT you, the employer, want to accomplish. Then, consider what the most cost-effective way is to get started to motivate your employees toward permanent healthy behavior change. Measuring health metrics is a good baseline activity, but be aware that it will add duplicate costs and it will likely require additional investment in behavior modification motivations for your employees in order to have any real effectiveness.