I recently saw the new film Escape Fire and felt like it provided a pretty good introduction to the problems with American health care at the moment. It was up to date in detailing why Obamacare is an imperfect solution, and it did explore the issue of why for-profit corporations might not be in the best position to reduce health care costs. Just because of the wide variety of issues the filmmakers chose to look into, it was naturally limited in the depth it could go, but it seemed to provide a reasonably fair assessment overall.

I was struck by one example of lowering costs and improving health that I hadn’t heard about before – that of the grocery store Safeway. Faced with rising health insurance premiums like most companies, Safeway decided to implement a behavioral motivation program where it based the costs of its (non-union) employees’ premiums on a variety of health indicators: “tobacco usage, healthy weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels” according to an article written in the WSJ by Safeway CEO Steven Burd in 2009. He claimed that insurance costs almost immediately stabilized after implementation of the program in 2005 and that they were “building a culture of health and fitness.” The idea, of course, is that if people are financially motivated to behave themselves in a way that will reduce their future need for health care utilization, everyone will benefit.The movie showed happy-looking employees jogging around the building.

I got a feeling of unease when I heard this story, although I couldn’t immediately figure out why. What’s wrong with giving people an extra reason to improve their own health? After all, they’re the ones who are benefiting from losing weight, quitting smoking, etc. It took me awhile, and I had to dig into it a little bit, but I think I have an explanation.

Burd’s tone in the article struck me as condescending and infantilizing to the workers, although I’m sure he didn’t see it that way. To me, the subtext was, “if only these fat smokers would just QUIT IT ALREADY, they would save us all a ton of money.” He emphasized that 70% of health care costs are the direct result of behavior. (I wasn’t able to find sources in his article, but it very well may be true.) Regardless, such statements are oversimplifications that grossly devalue the truly transformative experience of changing an unhealthy habit. And it shames and punishes people who are unable to make the changes.

Why is that a problem? If 70% of health care costs truly are the result of unhealthy behaviors, then that must mean those behaviors are probably pretty hard to change. I don’t think that people were totally ok with making themselves ill and just looking for an insurance discount to provide that final incentive to get rid of their pesky congestive heart failure caused by a combo of uncontrolled hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes-induced heart attacks.

What seems to be difficult for most super-rich people to grasp is that behaviors aren’t just about an individual’s choices. An individual isn’t isolated from the influences around them, but certainly does suffer from them. Not having a car because you are poor, work a low-paying job with weird hours, take a bus home to a neighborhood where there aren’t any grocery stores, and as a result end up eating crap from the local corner store which contributes to your early-onset diabetes certainly could be considered a “behavior” but I think it’d be more accurate to call it a “complete failure of our unjust society.” Granted, most people’s situations are not that drastic, but it’s an illustration of how even calling something a “behavior” neglects the complexities inherent to real people’s lives.

I’m reminded of a (by all accounts middle-class, relatively privileged) person I met whose weight-loss efforts had stalled recently because of severe depression accompanied by some pretty terrible family and social circumstances through absolutely no fault of their own. Any one of us would have found it difficult to continue losing weight in their shoes, despite this individual being highly motivated. It seems incredibly uncompassionate to just toss that person into the policy. It contributes to the myth that meeting these objective, population-based benchmarks are possible for every person at every time if they’d just work hard enough and take personal responsibility, dammit!  It pits workers against each other – hey, fatty 2 cubicles over! Put down the donut and take a walk around the damn building to get your blood pressure down! I don’t wanna have to pay for your expensive, fancy diabetes drugs!

And perhaps most frustrating of all, it’s based on the premise that absolutely everything, even our own health and well-being, has a price and can be commodified.

I should note that in no way am I attempting to minimize the accomplishments of Safeway employees who actually did make these changes and come out far healthier. I have no doubt that such a program was just what some people needed to provide that extra oomph to get the exercise ball rollin’. But even if that were the case for every employee, isn’t it a bit creepy and invasive that your boss cares so much about your waistline and your cholesterol level?  A “culture of health and fitness” starts to look a little more like a culture of coercion, shame, and anxiety.

And what does this market-based solution do to fundamentally address the inequities in accessing health care? That is, even if every employer had a similar program, what would that mean for people who are unemployed due to say, chronic illness? Would they be further shamed and isolated from society? The program is based, by definition, on employees, so that means the people participating were at least healthy enough to work. Almost certainly this would mean that the care of the very sick would continue to fall in the public domain, decreasing private, corporate health care expenditures, but further increasing publicly funded healthcare (ie., Medicare). Though this type of system, Medicare will continue to be fantastically expensive, making it easier to demonize until we finally move toward a total privatization of health care, dissolution of Medicare and Medicaid entirely, with safety nets only being provided by voluntary, charity care.

Well, it turns out that even though Safeway medical costs did stabilize from 2005-2009, it may not have really been related to the incentive program at all and was heavily weighted towards the early years. That is, costs dropped 12.5% in 2005 when the company drastically changed the benefits it was offering. However, 2009 was the first year that insurance premiums were tied to test results at Safeway. According to David Hilzenrath in the Washington Post, “Even as Burd claimed last year to have held costs flat, Safeway was forecasting that per capita expenses for its employees would rise by 8.5 percent in 2009. According to a survey of 1,700 health plans by the benefits consultant Hewitt Associates, the average increase nationally was 6.1 percent.”  When Safeway Senior Vice President Ken Shachmut was asked why premiums rose so much despite their terrific program, he said “we frankly did not have as much control over things as we should have.”

Maybe they had too much control.

Of note, the idea of financial incentives being not only ineffective in reducing health care costs and improving societal health, but actually impeding these goals is one that I intend to explore in future posts!