You can debunk wellness ROI claims using fifth grade math, one prominent pundit claims. After taking (and passing) the Validation Institute’s certification test, I can tell you it takes a little bit more than that.  

The Validation Institute certifies individuals as competent to review, analyze, and produce health program measures. Given the high stakes – millions of dollars in savings – it’s comforting that not just any 11-year-old could pass. 

The test consists of exhibits, each of which displays a wellness program’s results. Your task is to identify as many fallacies and mistakes as you can. 

Also see: Intel, GE will check your wellness math

For example, one exhibit has a “projected medical plan trend” compared to the actual cost increases. In other words, the plan’s medical costs would have gone up by X%, but thanks to the wellness program, it went up a mere Y%. The savings is X minus Y. 

The fallacy is the projected trend; no one knows how much the plan’s costs would have gone up without the program. If only we had a parallel universe where we could see what happens with the program and what happens without it, then we might have a reasonable estimate. Short of that, we would need a comparable employer who had all major traits in common with our wellness-blessed employer, and see how each group fared. 

This is not fifth grade math so much as it is the ability to question. You can learn how and what to question without going to graduate school, though advanced education surely helps.  Reading industry books is one way to get there. Tracing statements back to their roots is another. Only real-world experience gives you the broader context of wellness programs and ROI claims. For example:

  • $17 per employee is not enough to sponsor a comprehensive wellness program, and certainly not one that delivers 18:1 ROI. 
  • Two percent of a group’s members could not “save” 75% of the group’s annual costs, no matter what they did for wellness.   

Certified individuals get listed on VI’s website, and get exposure to the employers and vendors who are preparing for VI’s validation tests. Anyone who works in wellness administration, buyer or seller, could benefit from exercising this lie-detector and taking the test, though probably only consultants will find it worthwhile to pay the $1,000 fee and get certified. 
The Validation Institute will bring reason and intellect to the hype-inflated wellness claims.  Let’s hope the concept goes viral and competence, rather than creative accounting, becomes the hallmark for wellness outcomes reporting. 

Linda K. Riddell is principal consultant with Health Economy, LLC in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

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