Rewards for Wellness

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A couple of months ago, we wrote about the impact of diet on medical costs in the United States (“Eating Up Health Care”). At the end of the piece, we asked if you would be willing to have your diet tracked in exchange for paying a lower insurance premium — and many of you responded positively, saying that there should be incentives for healthy living.

And according to a recent article in The New York Times, many companies agree, pursuing a variety of programs with the goal of reducing their health-care costs. Perhaps the most ambitious is a pilot program in Massachusetts called The Full Yield, which offers a range of prepared natural foods that are sold in corporate cafeterias as well as area grocery stores. After eating only Full Yield meals or “similarly whole-food-based choices” for three months, participants have numerous measurements taken over the next nine months to see if their dietary changes translate into any health-care cost reductions. These measurements include blood glucose level, triglycerides, waist circumference, C-reactive protein, and HbA1c level for people with diabetes. Participants also have phone access to nutrition coaches and can track their progress or get information on exercise, nutrition, and food preparation through an online portal. Employers currently enrolled in the program include John Hancock (a financial services company) and the City of Boston.

Other companies have already achieved health-care savings through less food-specific employee wellness programs. IBM saved $190 million between 2005 and 2007 after an $80 million investment in wellness programs; these savings came not just through lower health-care costs, but through fewer absences and higher productivity. Safeway offers its employees a program in which they have their weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure checked, and their health insurance premium is reduced based on meeting goals for each measurement.

This article comes on the heels of a study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, which predicts that diabetes-related costs will triple by 2034. Four health conditions that are becoming more common — Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer — already account for 75% of all health-care costs in the United States.

What do you think — have you participated in a wellness program through your employer? If so, how was it? Are there limits to how much an employer can, or should, track its employees’ diets? Leave a comment below!

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