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Posted on Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

University of Michigan pays $100 incentives to employees in wellness programs

By Amy Biolchini

Editor's note: This story was edited to clarify the funding mechanism for the rewards program.

For the fifth year in a row, the University of Michigan will be giving $100 to each of its employees enrolled in its health care benefits who participate in online wellness programs -- a measure U-M says has proven to be worthwhile thus far.

The requirements to receive the incentives this year are two fold and each worth $50: Employees must complete a 20-minute online survey on their health, and participate in another eligible activity. The incentives top at $100 pre-taxes and are included in an employee's paycheck.

U-M did a three-year internal evaluation of the program’s success after 2011, and reported that faculty and staff participating in the incentives program had lower health care costs, on average, and a lower rate of absenteeism at work by a small margin.


Changes in Health Risk Assessment factors self-reported by University of Michigan employees.

Courtesy U-M

“We’re moving folks from high-risk categories to low-risk categories,” said Karen Schmidt, MHealthy Project Senior Manager.

Employees with high cholesterol or high blood pressure screened in both 2009 and 2012 checkpoints had reductions in their levels, Schmidt said.

Three-year participants averaged $3,922 in annual health care costs from 2008-2010, and non-participants averaged $4,480, according to data provided by U-M.

Wellness programs tend to attract individuals that are already conscious about their weight and health, said Marianne Udow-Phillips, director of the Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation.

The center is a partnership between U-M and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Udow-Phillips said research on the effectiveness of wellness programs has many gaps.

“We really don’t have good research to tell us whether wellness programs work to save money,” Udow-Phillips said. “There is some indication that employees like them, and that there may be some impact on productivity.”

Employers like the concept of wellness programs and they make “intuitive sense” when considering the health and well-being of employees, Udow-Phillips said.

Some research suggests that employees do use online wellness programs if an incentive is provided, Udow-Phillips said, noting the incentive has to be a dollar value high enough to pique interest.

“There’s no research to suggest that long-term cost savings are a result,” Udow-Phillips said. “You end up spending a lot on incentives to engage people … and it’s just not clear that it attracts the people that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged with their health.”

About 38,000 employees are benefit-eligible and enrolled in a health care program, as well as 14,000 spouses and other qualified adults. Participation in the wellness programs has varied at about 50 percent of their benefit eligible employees, Schmidt said.

The wellness incentives programs are a benefit paid to its employees by U-M.

“Part of the challenge with these kinds of programs is it takes a little bit of time to see if it has an impact,” Udow-Phillips said.

U-M began its rewards program in 2009, and has offered $100 each year to benefits-eligible employees for completing varying requirements ever since:

  • 2009: $50 for completing a questionnaire, $50 for a health screening
  • 2010: $50 for completing a questionnaire, $50 for completing two eligible activities
  • 2011: $50 for completing a questionnaire, $50 for completing one eligible activity
  • 2012: $50 for completing a questionnaire, $50 for a health screening
  • 2013: $50 for completing a questionnaire, $50 for completing one eligible activity

“We’re working on different strategies to help get people involved and develop action plans to reach those goals,” Schmidt said.

Eligible activities include an online challenge program called Active U, in which about 10,000 employees participated last year.

The 12-week program has employees set goals and log their physical activity through an online portal, and sends reminder emails with healthy living tips each week. The program also gives prize offerings to participants and a free T-shirt at the end.

U-M is attempting to reach a cumulative goal of 30 million minutes of physical activity for all of its employees this year.

The program is in its eighth year. Enrollment is between Jan. 22 and Feb. 5.

Other eligible activities include individual and group stress management programs, Weight Watchers and MHealthy Weight Management programs, nutrition consultations, personalized exercise sessions, department-level nutrition and physical activities, online educational programs and tobacco treatment programs.

For the first time, U-M has extended the rewards program this year to spouses and other qualified adults covered by U-M health care plans: If they take the health questionnaire, they’ll be entered into a drawing for $500.

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Tue, Jan 29, 2013 : 6:35 p.m.

The problem of health screening: Kindly check the rules about confidentiality of your personal information. Your personal information could be sold to other parties interested in that information. A drug company may use the data to market their products. Your blood profile could be viewed by FBI and other investigative agencies. If for some unfortunate and unforeseen reason, if your blood profile matches with a sample obtained at a crime scene, you may get arrested for a crime before you could find your attorney. All participants in health screening examinations must carefully read the disclosure statement before giving the consent about disclosure of personal, confidential information. For $50.00 dollars, you will lose your Constitutional Rights to remain silent if you are charged with a crime. There is a huge risk to your personal reputation even if you are acquitted by a Court of Law. In my impression, a wellness examination must not demand a blood sample. I have personally conducted thousands of such wellness examinations and never tested blood, or urine samples. Only your personal physician, or a Court of Law may ask you to provide a sample for a specific reason and purpose. Why do you want to lose your Freedom while you live in a Free Country???


Tue, Jan 29, 2013 : 3:30 p.m.

I'm glad to see that they have switched to a questionnaire from the in person health screening. I know a number of employees who either avoided the screening all together after hearing stories of others being shamed by the screening staff. Making someone submit to a mini-physical in a public place performed by unknown staff achieves nothing except ensuring that only people who know they are thin and healthy will show up.


Tue, Jan 29, 2013 : 3:23 a.m.

After discussing this a bit more with colleagues from the health system, we wondered about two aspects of this article. First, Ms. Biolchini indicates that UM evaluated the program's "success in 2011, and reported that faculty and staff participating in the incentives program had lower health care costs, on average, and a lower rate of absenteeism at work by a small margin. Given the program appears to lack any sort of control group (a standard of good, valid research from what I understand) we wondered if Business and Finance could have reviewed the trend for the health care costs of these employees prior to engaging in MHealthy to see what the trend for these employees had been before the program? Increasing (factoring out normal inflation)? Decreasing? Also, one of my co-workers recalled that attendance data was self-reported. Why not use actual attendance data, at least for the staff who must record time? Self-reported data at the moment one comes to a question on a survey seems questionable. How many people looked to see how much time they actually missed vs. guessed? Are people more likely to underestimate, overestimate, or accurately report how much time they missed work? I'd guess under-estimate. As another commenter suggests, I can see why Blue Cross has an interest here; the smoke and mirrors make it sound good for marketing purposes with other clients.


Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 5:22 p.m.

MHEALTHY - UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN WELLNESS PROGRAM: In my view, this wellness program is a publicity stunt at a minimum, and at worse it is a deliberate scam to brainwash people to think that they are the real culprits for the ever increasing costs of health insurance and health care services. University of Michigan has not formulated a health care policy that aims at health promotion, and keeping people in positive, good health. If there is a policy, the implementation of the policy would drastically undermine the ability of insurance companies and the health care providers to reap profits. This program is a public relations ploy to sell the misconception that people are not taking personal responsibility for their own health care. I am not surprised that vendors like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has entered into a partnership with the University to justify their greed and avarice without demanding the proof of a written health care policy that truly aims at health promotion, and health preservation.


Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 2:16 p.m.

Too bad for the many Temps, I'm sure they would be grateful just to be offered healthcare and some minimal benefits by UMHS...

Aaron Mercer

Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 1:56 a.m.

I'm an MHealthy Champion that helps out with this program - one interesting tidbit from last year's big pow-wow was that negative incentives were a consideration that was struck down pretty early. Apparently threatening people with a worse benefits package for noncompliance in a preventative healthcare program doesn't work. There are times though when the $100 seems a bit ludicrous - shouldn't people care about their health and well-being anyway? Most people in my building are aware of MHealthy and no one gets heckled when they take time (even during the work day) for a half hour jog or whatnot.


Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 12:54 a.m.

It's a win win if you ask me.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 8:47 p.m.

How is this any worse than paying 5 to 6 figure incentives to football coaches for reaching the Rose Bowl, or paying administrators financial incentives for reaching certain goals? It is all money being paid for things that should be strived for, but $100 is a lot less than other incentives.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 6:38 p.m.

The Objective Criteria for Health and Well-being : This program is based upon subjective criteria such as stress, and well-being(Mental Health). It is not based upon objective evaluation of these individuals prior to the study and after the conclusion of the study. In the Indian Armed Forces, my clinical practice required objective evaluation of physical, and mental fitness of all combatants. The individual may report subjective feelings or impressions about the state of health. The fact of being in good health is established by objective medical examination of each individual. If this program is of any use, I need objective information that it can lower the costs of health care. The costs reported in this story are subjective experience of these participants with no objective verification of that data. If these individuals have spent little less money on health care, please let me know if it has impacted the earnings made by the University Health Service or other Health Care Provider??? To say that they spent less is just a 'bubble' in the air.

JIm Knight

Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 4:50 p.m.

I'm part of the Human Resources communications team at the University of Michigan, and I'd like to clarify two points about the MHealthy Rewards program: 1. MHealthy Rewards incentives are a benefit paid by the university. The Rewards program is not funded by subtracting money from employee paychecks. 2. Active U is an MHealthy program and is not part of the University Health Service.


Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 2:07 a.m.

A fact check needs to be done here. My understanding is that Human Resources took the savings that schools and colleges were expecting to receive as part of the changes recommended by the Committee on Sustainable Health Benefits (CoSHB) - see - and applied them towards funding MHealthy in whole or part. Those "savings" resulted from substantial increases to employee health benefits as the premium sharing for employees increased. So, in effect, this program has felt to me like simply re-earning the money that I'd begun to pay in higher premiums that I used to pay. I'd like to know 1) what the total cost is of MHealty (staff salaries, benefits, office space, marketing materials, etc.) and what the breakeven point of the investment in this initiative was cacluated to be. Surely someone in Tim Slottow's organization must've performed this standard financial cacluation or perhaps a more sophisticated one.

Michigan Man

Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 4:24 p.m.

Waste of money - from a pure economic point - the longer you live the more money you spend on heatlhcare. Live to 60 - 90% of your total healthcare expenditures are spent in you last year of life. Live to 90- 90% of your healthcare expenditures are also spent in you last year of life. Dying earlier, as compared to others, is really, from a economic point the best way to save healthcare expenditures.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 5:41 p.m.

From an economic point we should stop funerals too. I mean spending money on a casket that people will see for all of a couple of minutes, then burying people in it. Spending money to cremate people. I say, let's just dump all dead bodies in the ocean and let the fish have a feast. OR, we could make an economic argument that we could cut the bodies up and use it for human food. Dead people are cheaper than buying steaks at Meijer. Bodies could be graded in the same way as cows. Prime for those that have perfect meat to fat ratios.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 5:10 p.m.

Based on this logic, it would be best to die suddenly, no matter the age. Bottom line, dying fast is better?

Clay Moore

Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 3:34 p.m.

Paying people to participate in an online survey? Just another example of the liberal administration mindset spending freely of taxpayers money. Use those funds to provide english lessons to the foreign teaching assistants.


Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 2:21 p.m.

Yeah...those damn liberals! SMH....Too funny


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 5:36 p.m.

Well since the employees who do take part in the survey are spending $500 per year LESS on health care costs to THE TAXPAYER, it seems to me the liberal way SAVES the U money in the long run. Of course, that is typical of the right wing, they think about the $100 cost instead of the $500 benefit.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 5:07 p.m.

*English (English should be capitalized here)

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 4:54 p.m.

The focus is not the survey. It's the starting point. Getting people to complete the survey helps them recognize and think about patterns in their life. I've seen people who ordinarily wouldn't consider their health get more active because of the university's initiative.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 2:41 p.m.

What's key here is that programs like this, which appear to result in healthier employees and lower health care costs, don't have a control group, as Udow-Phillips notes. To truly measure the effectiveness of these types of incentives, you have to NOT offer them to people that are engaged in their health anyway, because that's who these programs draw. I'm all in favor of these types of programs, but her point about an inability to measure them is correct.


Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 2:13 a.m.

Agreed. It seems like some fundamental components of good research are missing from the evaluation of this program.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 5:34 p.m.

By that theory there is NO way to ever really test anything. How do you determine how much one is "engaged" in their health? Here is the fact. Those that are engaged (or participate in this rewards) are less expensive for the U. They deserve that reward. Those that do not care about their health or are too lazy to do the things required, deserve to be paid less. For the record, my company has had this going on for several years. The level of participation has rinse every single year because the incentives have been increased. With no real incentive the participation was negligible. The current incentive is a SUBSTANTIAL decrease in insurance premiums. I am actually paying less in 2013 than I did in 2012 (though part of that is also the refund our company received due to the 80% rule from Obamacare). I would go as far as to suggest that partaking in these should become a condition of employment.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 2:22 p.m.

It doesn't look like this program is available to UM retirees. Too bad. Or am I wrong?

Rob MI

Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 2:27 p.m.

Retirees are apparently not eligible. From the MHealthy website: MHealthy Rewards 2013 is open to: Qualifying benefits-eligible faculty and staff Enrolled spouses and other qualified adults (OQA) enrolled in a U-M Health Plan


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 2:03 p.m.

I enjoy jogging through the Arb, and I end running up and around the U of M Medical Campus. I love running past the "smokehouse" - you know, the facility we've built for health care workers to smoke themselves to death just across the street from the hospital. I'll think about this article next time I run past those people.


Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 2:16 a.m.

I am not sure what MRunner is talkin about. All you have to do is complete the surevey to get the first $50 and then engage in some activities (not even necessarily physical activites) to get the other $50. No physical. No dental exam. No eye exam.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 5:17 p.m.

Jogging or running every day is not the point. The point is the hidden consequence if one does not participate in these incentives. In the case where folks are active and lead a healthy lifestsyle, they must submit this to get credit. They must have the annual physical exam, dentist and eye exams to gain additional credit. If not, a Gold member health plan get reduced to standard and thus, fewer medical visits are covered. I agree that it is a win-win for all. The hidden consequence caused me to learn the hard way. I have since conformed and actively participate in these incentives and have cashed in on the awards, or else.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 4:58 p.m.

What you should think about is how much effort the university has put into trying to accommodate a segment of the work population who have a tobacco addiction while at the same time trying to maintain healthy environment for all employees and patients. In a black-and-white world, you comment might seem reasonable. In the real world, it comes off as mean-spirited and ill informed.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 1:50 p.m.

My former employee used to pay me $30/month for biking to work. I was so much fitter and healthier. And my calves were beastly. I benefited from exercise, health, and money. My employer benefited from a happier, more productive employee who cost less in health care.

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, Jan 28, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

How interesting! That's really a great idea.


Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 1:25 p.m.

These type incentives are now very common for those who work for major employers, including mine. If an employee does not participate, the benefits package can be downgraded.