Employer Health Insurance Wellness Programs: Helpful Feature or Profit Center?

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healthLike many other folks, I have the majority of my health insurance premiums paid by my employer. I appreciate this and value it as part of my “total compensation” (a fact that they keep reminding me about).

My employer and health insurance provider recently teamed up to offer us a “Wellness program”. These used to be rewards-based programs where you earned points for activities like watching health-education videos, tracking your weight, creating a food journal, etc. You could then redeem those points towards gift cards and such. The idea was to encourage healthy behaviors like eating better and regular exercise with little pushes (“carrots”).

But instead of the “carrot”, it appears they may be switching to the “stick”.

Starting this year, if I don’t complete an in-person health exam, 30-minute online survey, and telephone coaching session annually, then the employer contribution towards my health insurance premiums will be cut by around 40%. For example, if my employer used to contribute $800 a month towards health insurance and I don’t jump through all the hurdles, my out-of-pocket costs will increase by $320 a month. This program is managed by a for-profit publicly-traded corporation called Healthways (ticker HWAY).

Healthways, Inc. provides well-being improvement solutions that help people improve their physical, emotional and social well-being, thereby improving their health and productivity and reducing their health-related costs.

I’m a skeptical person, so this basically translates to “Healthways makes money by making people cost less to insure.” They can do this in two ways:

  • Decrease health insurance claims by improving employee health through cost-effective strategies.
  • Decrease employer-paid premiums by increasing the employee-paid portion for lazy or forgetful employees.

I really don’t know how much these mandated tasks will improve worker health. I suppose some people who never see a doctor on their own may find out they have hypertension or high cholesterol. I know my wife and I pretty much went through the motions (took about 4 hours altogether including travel time) in order to prevent that huge premium hike. It was a financial no-brainer. On the other hand, I would love to see what percentage of workers fail to complete all the tasks by the deadline and how much extra money that brings in.

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  1. I would think it’s fully acceptable to do the reqs during work hours.

    • Well, the health exam had to be done at an off-site location during specific hours. The rest could probably be done at work, but that doesn’t make things easier for those whose work depends on actual deliverables as opposed to just clocking out at the end of the day.

  2. I would agree with Dan, you can do most of the paperwork during the work hours. I would love to have a program like that, which would give me points for gift cards, etc. Jonathan, do you still get the points or did it turn completely from “carrot” to “stick”?

    • We can still earn points for additional activities. I’m thinking that these little activities didn’t really help their bottom line though, thus the need for more heightened measures.

  3. We have this healthways-pile-of-stinking-crap where I work. Here, it’s called ‘partners for health’ – so if you’re not a ‘partner’ then you pay a ton more for your ever-increasing premium. My wife and I have successfully jumped through all the hoops every year so far. They keep raising the bar slightly higher every year it seems. Another extremely frustrating thing is that, after you’ve sent everything in, filled out endless-mindless quizzes and had to ask your doctor to send in your medical screening results, etc… it’s practically impossible to tell if you’ve finally hit the mark (met your ‘partnership promise’) for the year until it’s almost too late. Oh, you can call and (try) to ask them, but there are looooong hold times because they’re always short staffed if you have to ask anything from a real person. ARGGHH.

    • I agree, I’m afraid this year they will collect “baseline” data, and then next year we will have to make a target like you already have in order to keep our health insurance benefits. Something to look forward to!

  4. Joe, thanks for the information. Maybe I have to rethink my original excitement when I said “I would love to have a program like that”. Now it looks like more work and risk than benefit (points converting to gift cards).

  5. My previous employer used Healthways and I found it to be a pain too. My new one uses a company called SpotMeFit that pays us each time we work out or for using a Fitbit, etc. Definitely in the carrot camp and way easier to get your rewards.

    • If I got a Fitbit or Nike Fuel, I’d definitely try it out. Or do you buy it and then they pay you to exercise and track it?

      • I don’t think there’s any way to use it by yourself without your company ponying up to sponsor your activity. GymPact does that but you get tiny rewards that aren’t worth the time/effort IMO. But to answer your question, you have to buy your own or you can use a free app like Moves to track your walking. I get $0.20/mile and $5 each time I go to the gym.

  6. Captain Betty says

    We’ve had a wellness program at work for about 5yrs now (Kersh) – at first it was required to participate in a biometric testing (blood sample, weight, cholesterol, fasting, glucose, etc…) in order to qualify for health insurance – I balked at that real fast. Over the years they continually tweaked requirements, throwing incentives, benefits in order to get participation up – hasn’t worked yet. Participation at best was about 35% the working population. This last year they dropped the mandatory submission to testing (probably due to obamacare) but you’d loose out on any financial incentives such as premium reduction if you met your goals the following year. If you’re deemed a risk; high blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, you’ll get frequent calls from a registered nurse, have options to sign up for programs, etc… I suppose it’s an ok resource for those that need or want it, but it seems like they’re trying everything in their power to get people to sign up and participate to prove to someone not to raise rates due to participation.

  7. I’d also be a little concerned about a Third-Party company potentially getting access to your medical records via the annual health checkup

  8. WE have a wellness program at our job but its not as big of a deal. If we do their health checkup then we get $250 extra kicked in by our employer to HSA or deductibles.

    I think the main point is to catch a few people with hypertension or high cholesterol and avoid a heart attack or two.

  9. Joshua Katt says

    I’m on your side that is it all about the profit. The screenings and tests and hoops I’ve been through is a joke as far as detecting real issues. One year, they drew blood at work, the next year I had to do at a “participating lab”, the last year I had to prick and mail my own blood in. Everyone has their hand out in the medical field and everyone gets a piece…

  10. Jonathan, It appears you employer does not appreciate its workers or their time. There is no other explanation for why they would chose to threaten your health insurance and fritter your time to save a buck.

    It is clear the conditions will only get more onerous every year. As they have at other places.

  11. I think these programs are good for both the employer and the employee. The employer saves money and the employee is incentivized to focus on their health. I found that some of the people that complained the most were the ones that could benefit the most. As a result of my employer focusing on my health I lost weight and began exercising regularly. Also, as a stockholder, i feel the company has an obligation to contain costs.

  12. My company has a similar program. I don’t use their awful insurance so I avoid the whole thing. The irony about these programs: they force employees to work 60-70 hour weeks and then act like they care about employee health. If they wanted happier, healthier employees they’d hire appropriately…

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