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Metabolic Methods: Aetna Says Incentives Improved Worker Health

As cases of metabolic syndrome spike nationally, the insurer is seeing a decline after three years of the program.

October 15, 2013
Related Topics: Health Care Costs, Benefits Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, The Latest
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Health insurer Aetna Inc. sees staving off metabolic syndrome as good for its workforce’s health and productivity. That’s why the Hartford, Connecticut-based company provides a financial incentive to its 35,000 U.S. employees who lower their risk of developing the medical disorder.

The reward: a $300 annual credit toward health care premiums for employees who test in the healthy range for at least three of the five metabolic syndrome risk factors. Dependent spouses or domestic partners also are eligible.

“A healthier employee is able to be a more productive employee,” said Jennifer Yakey-Ault, a senior benefits consultant at Aetna, the third-largest U.S. managed-care firm by membership.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of metabolic abnormalities — high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low HDL, or “good” cholesterol, and waist circumference greater than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women — that occur together and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  A diagnosis of metabolic syndrome occurs when someone has three or more of the risk factors.

And new research from the nonprofit Integrated Benefits Institute shows that about one-third of the workforce has at least one of the risk factors, which hints at potential disabilities if left unchecked.

“The rate of risk for disabling events like heart attack or stroke goes up exponentially as people have more and more of these risk factors,” said Kim Jinnett, the institute’s research director.

And the cost of underperforming because of these conditions — the workplace problem often dubbed “presenteeism” — almost equals the medical costs for treating these chronic metabolic conditions. Presenteeism costs $35,300 per 100 employees annually compared with $37,600 per 100 employees annually in medical treatments, the institute’s research shows.

“Most employers tend to look at only medical costs,” Jinnett says, “which means they’re leaving half the costs on the table.”

The number of U.S. adults with metabolic syndrome rose to 64 million by 2000, up from 50 million in 1990, according to research by Dr. Earl Ford of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. More recent studies estimate 68 million adults have it.

Jinnett recommends that employers identify and track the metabolic risks in their workforces. Many employers include self-reported risk screenings as part of health-benefit enrollment for new employees, she said.

Employers also can get aggregate data from their health-plan supplier, making it possible to see whether conditions go up or down or remain level over time. It also helps employers understand if employees who are using health and wellness benefits improve.

Aetna already sees results in its 3-year-old initiative. Fifty percent of employees who tested “out of range” in 2011 had moved into the healthy range in 2012. Those who test “out of range” are notified of programs designed to help them.

“If you can catch people before it’s gone into diabetes or heart disease, then that’s the time to do it,” Yakey-Ault said. “We definitely have seen improvement.”

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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