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MAY/JUNE 2011 :: 72(3)
New Models of Care

The policy forum of this issue reviews new models of health care payment and delivery. North Carolina is a national leader in some of the new models envisioned under the Affordable Care Act, and this forum features authoritative commentaries about 6 types of models in the state: entrepreneur-driven activities, management of innovations, applications of technology, changes in financing, market approaches, and structures involving changes in how health care professionals work. Also in this issue, original articles describe overweight and obese employees’ perceptions about lifestyle-associated changes in health benefits, career transitions among physicians dually trained in internal medicine and pediatrics, and hospitals’ use of data to identify disparities in the care of minority patients.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Knowledge and Perceptions Among Overweight and Obese Employees About Lifestyle-Related Health Benefit Changes

Jiang Li, Laura Linnan, Eric A. Finkelstein, Deborah F. Tate, Carolyn Naseer, Kelly R. Evenson

N C Med J. 2011;72(3):183-190.PDF | TABLE OF CONTENTS



Background We investigated perceptions among overweight and obese state employees about changes to health insurance that were designed to reduce the scope of health benefits for employees who are obese or who smoke.

Methods Before implementation of health benefit plan changes, 658 state employees who were overweight (ie, those with a body mass index [BMI] of 25-29.9) or obese (ie, those with a BMI of ≥30) enrolled in a weight-loss intervention study were asked about their attitudes and beliefs concerning the new benefit plan changes.

Results Thirty-one percent of employees with a measured BMI of 40 or greater self-reported a BMI of less than 40, suggesting they were unaware that their current BMI would place them in a higher-risk benefit plan. More than half of all respondents reported that the new benefit changes would motivate them to make behavioral changes, but fewer than half felt confident in their ability to make changes. Respondents with a BMI of 40 or greater were more likely than respondents in lower BMI categories to oppose the new changes focused on obesity (P < .001). Current smokers were more likely than former smokers and nonsmokers to oppose the new benefit changes focused on tobacco use (P < .01).

Limitations Participants represented a sample of employees enrolled in a weight-loss study, limiting generalizability to the larger population of state employees.

Conclusions Benefit plan changes that require employees who are obese and smoke to pay more for health care may motivate some, but not all, individuals to change their behaviors. Since confidence to lose weight was lowest among individuals in the highest BMI categories, more-intense intervention options may be needed to achieve desired health behavior changes.

Behavioral risk factors such as smoking and obesity are associated with an increase in many preventable chronic diseases that affect the health of working adults, as well as influence the financial health of employers. For example, obesity is estimated to cost employers $73.1 billion annually [1], and tobacco use is estimated to cost employers $75.5 billion annually [2], both in direct medical costs.

As health care premiums rise, employers are increasingly looking for ways to maintain or reduce costs [3-7]. According to a nationally representative survey of employers conducted in 2009, 21% of respondents reported that, in response to the economic downturn, they reduced the scope of health benefits or increased cost sharing [8]. From the perspective of employers, imposing health insurance surcharges or limiting benefits for employees with risk factors, such as smoking and obesity, associated with leading chronic diseases may be more desirable actions than other forms of cost shifting [3]. Although these surcharges are an additional financial burden to high-risk employees, one possible benefit is that the surcharges may increase motivation in these individuals to quit smoking or to lose weight. However, little is known about employee perceptions about such changes before they are implemented, whether employees are motivated to consider making a behavioral change, and whether employees are confident in their ability to make desired behavioral changes. Consequently, data-driven guidance is lacking for individuals who are constructing health benefit changes.

During 2010 in North Carolina, approximately 661,000 state employees had health insurance as a benefit covered by the State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees. In April 2009, North Carolina Senate Bill 287 became law, and the Comprehensive Wellness Initiative went into effect [9]. For years, employees were automatically enrolled in an 80/20 health benefit plan, in which 80% of health care costs are covered and 20% are paid by the employee. Beginning in July 2010, all state employees were automatically enrolled in a 70/30 health benefit plan, in which 70% of health care costs are covered and 30% are paid by the employee. The official health benefit policy can be accessed on the State Health Plan Web site (available at: http://www.shpnc.org/comp-wellness.html). In general, enrolled employees (or any additional covered dependents) who reported being a nonsmoker were eligible to stay in the more desirable 80/20 plan (Table 1).

Changes in North Carolina State Health Plan benefits related to weight will go into effect in July 2011 (Table 1). As planned, all employees will be automatically enrolled in the 70/30 health benefit plan unless they attest to being a nonsmoker and having a body mass index (BMI; calculated as the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) of less than 40. Details can be found on the State Health Plan Web site (available at: http://www.shpnc.org/comp-wellness.html). In 2012, employees will be automatically enrolled in the 70/30 health benefit plan unless they attest to being a nonsmoker and having a BMI of less than 35 (Table 1).

In this study, performed before implementation of the health benefit changes, we assessed the awareness, attitudes, beliefs, and motivation of overweight state employees who were covered by the North Carolina State Health Plan and would be directly affected by the changes. In addition, we examined variations in employee attitudes on the basis of their BMI and smoking status. The following hypotheses were tested: employees’ self-reported BMI does not match their actual (measured) BMI; employees in the highest BMI categories are less likely to favor the new benefit plan changes, to believe in their potential for helping employees lose weight, and to report confidence in their ability to lose weight, compared with employees in lower BMI categories; and overweight employees who smoke are less likely to favor the new benefit plan changes or to believe in their potential to help employees quit smoking, compared with former smokers and nonsmokers.

Methods
Sample. In October and November 2008, 1,020 employees from 12 North Carolina colleges and universities who were 18 years of age or older and had a BMI of 25 or greater were enrolled in the North Carolina WAY (Worksite Activities for You) to Health research study, a group-randomized, controlled trial designed to examine the effectiveness of a Web-based weight-loss program and cash incentives for weight loss. Employees were excluded if they were not a member of the State Health Plan; were not a permanent, full-time employee at a participating campus; had type 1 diabetes; were pregnant or breast-feeding; had lost more than 20 pounds during the previous 6 months; or were taking weight-loss medication. Those who reported having had a malignancy requiring chemotherapy or radiation during the past 5 years, who answered “yes” to any of the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire questions [10], or who had a BMI of 42 or greater were required to obtain physician’s consent before participating in the study.

In October and November 2009, 690 participating employees (68%) concluded a 12-month WAY to Health follow-up assessment by completing a survey that included questions about the new State Health Plan changes described above. Next, they attended an on-site assessment during which their height and weight were measured (at that time, they received a handout with their BMI calculated on the basis of measured height and weight). This analysis was limited to the 658 employees with a BMI of 25 or greater at the 12-month assessment. Institutional review boards at the University of North Carolina, all participating universities, and Duke–National University of Singapore approved this recruitment protocol and all study procedures.

Measurements. We described the new smoking- and obesity-related benefit changes to participants before asking them questions about the new changes to the State Health Plan benefits (Table 2). Key sociodemographic characteristics were self-reported. The responses to several open-ended questions about smoking- and weight-related benefit changes and preferred intervention options were also summarized.

Smokers were categorized as current smokers, former smokers, or nonsmokers on the basis of responses to the questions “Have you smoked at least 100 cigarettes in your entire life?” and “Do you currently smoke?” Respondents who were cigarette smokers at the time of the survey were categorized as current smokers, those who were not smokers but had smoked 100 cigarettes in their lifetime were categorized as former smokers, and those who were not smokers and had not smoked 100 cigarettes in their lifetime were categorized as nonsmokers.

Trained staff used standardized protocols to measure the height and weight of all participants at baseline, 3-, 6-, 12-, and 18-month assessments. These data were used to calculate the BMI at each assessment. For the purpose of the analysis, the BMI at the 12-month assessment was categorized using the conventional categories for overweight (25-29.9), obese class I (30-34.9), obese class II (35-39.9), and obese class III (40 or greater). Before undergoing each on-site measurement, participants were asked to specify their current BMI. After height and weight were measured during the follow-up visits at 3, 6, and 12 months, participants were given a handout that specified their actual BMI.

Statistical analysis. Because the study was a group-randomized, controlled trial and data were clustered by university or college, respondents and nonrespondents were compared using Rao-Scott 2 tests. The self-reported BMI categories and measured BMI categories were compared using the McNemar test. Next, we used Rao-Scott 2 tests to compare attitudes and beliefs by BMI category and smoking status, accounting for the clustered nature of the data. An α of 5% was used as the threshold of statistical significance. Characteristics (eg, age, sex, race, education level, household income, marital status, and current health status) are not significant confounders of the relationship between attitudes or beliefs about the health plan changes and smoking status (or BMI category) and, thus, are not included in this analysis. Statistical analyses were performed using SAS, version 9.2.

Results
Participants. Table 3 compares sociodemographic characteristics, smoking status, and BMI category of respondents with those of nonrespondents. There was no significant difference between respondents and nonrespondents, except that respondents were more likely to be staff (72.8% vs. 52.2%; P = .017). Of the 658 respondents, 72.8% were staff (rather than faculty), 80.5% were female, 48.2% were white, 53.8% were married, and 45.4% held an associate’s or bachelor’s degree (Table 3). The mean age (standard deviation) of the participants was 46  9.9 years, with a range of 21-76 years. Among respondents, 179 (27.2%) were former smokers, and 38 (5.8%) were current smokers; 245 (37.2%) had a BMI of 35 or greater, and 108 (16.4%) had a BMI of 40 or greater.

Self-reported and measured BMI at 12 months. Thirty-one percent of respondents with a measured BMI of 40 or greater had a self-reported BMI of less than 40, whereas 12.0% of respondents with a measured BMI of less than 40 had a self-reported BMI of 40 or greater (P = .001) (data not shown). Nearly half (47.0%) of respondents with a measured BMI of 35 or greater misclassified themselves as having a BMI of less than 35, while only 10% with a measured BMI of less than 35 self-reported a BMI of 35 or greater (P < .001). These data suggest that a substantial proportion of obese individuals covered by the State Health Plan might not be aware of the potential impact that changes in the benefit plan will have on them.

Attitudes and beliefs about State Health Plan benefit changes focused on obesity. Overall, 47.2% of all respondents opposed the new State Health Plan benefit changes focused on BMI, while 52.8% thought they were a good idea “to some extent,” “to a greater extent,” or “to a significant extent.” When asked whether the health benefit changes would help employees lose weight, 16.1% of all respondents provided favorable responses, while 45.6% did not believe that the benefit plan changes would help employees lose weight. Respondents with a BMI of 40 or greater were significantly more likely than respondents in other BMI categories to oppose the new health benefit changes (Table 4). Moreover, respondents with a BMI of 40 or greater were more likely than those in lower BMI categories to report that the new health benefit changes would not be effective in helping employees lose weight (Table 4). Respondents with a BMI of 40 or greater were significantly less likely than those in lower BMI categories to feel confident in their ability to lose weight and thereby remain in the 80/20 plan (P < .001) (Table 4).

Among all respondents, 18.5% reported that the new BMI-related health benefit changes would increase their stress and make them gain weight, 32.5% reported that they would maintain their current weight, 66.3% reported that the benefit changes would motivate them to increase physical activity, and 63.5% reported that the benefit changes would help them focus on making healthier food choices and consuming smaller portions of food (Table 5).

Attitudes and beliefs about State Health Plan benefit changes focused on tobacco use. Overall, 43.9% of respondents opposed the new tobacco-related State Health Plan benefit changes, while 56.1% thought they were a good idea “to some extent,” “to a greater extent,” or “to a significant extent.” When asked whether the new health benefit changes would help smokers quit, 18.0% of respondents provided a favorable response, while 51.6% reported that the benefit changes would not be helpful. Current smokers were significantly more likely than former smokers and nonsmokers to oppose the new health benefit changes related to tobacco use (71.% vs 40.4% and 43.1%, respectively; P < .01) (Table 6). Also, current smokers were significantly less likely to believe the new health benefit changes will help smokers quit, compared with former smokers and nonsmokers (5.3% vs 23.6% and 16.5%, respectively; P = .02) (Table 6).

Most current smokers (68.4%) reported that the new smoking-related State Health Plan benefit changes would motivate them to attempt to quit smoking, while 34.2% said the new smoking-related benefit changes would increase their stress and make them smoke more (Table 5). Overall, 38.1% of current smokers felt confident in their ability to quit smoking and thereby remain in the 80/20 plan.

Discussion
At a time when employers and health plan administrators are trying to address rising health care costs, one available option gaining more traction is to shift the costs of high-risk health behaviors (eg, obesity and smoking) to employees. This cost shift may place surcharges on high-risk behaviors within the context of health benefit plan changes, thus alleviating costs to the employer by shifting them to the high-risk employee. Yet there is very little information about what employees think about these initiatives. This study took advantage of a unique opportunity to reveal attitudes and beliefs about health plan changes from overweight and obese employees before the enactment of new lifestyle-related health benefit plan changes that would likely affect many of them directly, given their weight status.

Our results indicate that many state employees who will likely be affected by health plan changes related to BMI might underestimate their true BMI and, thus, believe that their health benefit plan status will not be affected by such changes. Moreover, among these overweight or obese individuals, current smokers and those in higher BMI categories were less likely to report that the tobacco- and weight-related benefit plan changes were a good idea or would help them quit smoking or lose weight. Fewer than half of the current smokers were confident that they would be able to quit smoking. Reported confidence to lose weight and thereby maintain the desired 80/20 benefit plan status was also lower among individuals in the higher BMI categories. These results have both policy and programmatic implications for employers planning similar health benefit plan changes and for those implementing these changes.

The fact that many respondents were unaware that they are overweight or obese is consistent with the results of the 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in which 38.0% of overweight respondents did not identify themselves to be overweight [11]. Ironically, this lack of awareness occurred even though our participants were enrolled in a weight-loss study and had regular weight measurements as part of their participation, which should have resulted in a level of awareness greater than that for a general sample of overweight or obese employees. Adults also have difficulty understanding the meaning of BMI [12]. In this study, the questionnaire explained what the health plan benefit changes were, as well as how and when they would be implemented. Yet even among study participants who were told about the benefit changes and were being weighed at regular intervals, a proportion of them were unable to categorize their BMI accurately and were therefore unaware of the need to take appropriate steps to avoid additional health care costs. By use of annual cost estimates for overweight individuals [13], we determined that, for obese individuals, the actual mean difference in cost between the 80/20 plan and the 70/30 plan is roughly $315 per year. This figure represents 10% of the incremental per capita medical expenditures attributed to obesity (excluding overweight) among obese employees currently enrolled in the State Health Plan. Thus, it is important for plan administrators to communicate about policies so that individuals understand the potential costs they might face and can accurately determine their weight and BMI before implementation of the plan changes.

Overall, 52.8% of overweight respondents in this study thought weight-related benefit plan changes were a good idea, and 56.1% thought that tobacco-related benefit plan changes were a good idea. To date, employers and insurers have been more willing to penalize smokers by requiring them to pay higher premiums, given that the health risks and costs of smoking are well documented [14, 15] and that evidence-based treatment options exist, even for highly addicted individuals. As norms about obesity change [16] and the literature about the beneficial treatment options and long-terms costs of obesity grows, employers and insurers are likely to have different opinions than employees about the value of higher premiums for overweight and obese employees. Ongoing research on this topic is warranted.

A majority of respondents believed that the State Health Plan benefit changes would motivate them to lose weight. However, fewer than half of the respondents were confident they would maintain a healthy weight and stay in the 80/20 plan. This suggests that employees recognize that weight loss requires a serious commitment and that, even among those who are motivated to lose weight and have a benefit plan with incentives to encourage weight change, it remains challenging to do so [17]. Some respondents reported that the new State Health Plan benefit changes would increase their stress and make them gain weight. No evidence exists to support that this new policy will make employees gain weight, but another implication of these results is that more-intensive interventions are likely to be required for individuals who have a significant amount of weight to lose or who have difficulty losing weight [18, 19]. Given participants’ responses to the open-ended questions about program preferences (data not shown) and effective treatment options, programs that are effective for weight-gain prevention and for modest weight loss or maintenance and programs that assist individuals who have large amounts of weight to lose are desirable. In addition, structural approaches to creating a safe and healthy work environment, such as providing access to healthy, low-calorie food options or sponsoring fitness breaks, are additional supports for people who are making weight-related health changes and are consistent with national recommendations for creating and sustaining a healthy workforce [20, 21].

One strength of this study is that we polled a large sample of employees who were overweight, and thus at higher risk of being affected by these health plan changes, before the implementation of the changes. Yet this is also the principal limitation, since participants were drawn from a sample of employees enrolled in a weight-loss study and, thus, represent a select group of individuals who might not be generalizable to the larger population of state employees. Additionally, our employee sample overrepresented women. Another limitation of the study is that people with a BMI of 42 or greater needed physician consent to enter the study. Because of this requirement, characteristics of these participants might differ from those with a BMI of less than 42.

Health benefit plan changes that require employees who are obese or who smoke to pay more for health care may motivate some individuals to change their behaviors. However, since confidence about one’s ability to quit smoking or to lose weight is lowest among individuals in the highest weight categories, more-intensive interventions may be warranted. Communication efforts can assist employees in understanding the new health insurance benefit changes in advance of their implementation, including the potential costs employees might face. Continued monitoring and evaluation of health plan benefit changes and their impact on all employees, including high-risk employees, are desirable. Future studies could assess smoking-, weight-, and cost-related changes that result from the health plan policy, to build the evidence base for the design and implementation of health benefit plan changes that produce desired behavioral outcomes, as well as to clarify for whom these interventions are most and least effective. Although this study explored employee attitudes and beliefs, future research is needed to understand the attitudes and motivations of health insurers and employers about making these policy changes, so that the potential effects of the changes can be fully appreciated. Monitoring changes in attitudes and beliefs over time is also desirable, given the changing norms, political will, and other contextual factors that influence health in our culture.

Acknowledgments
We thank all universities and community colleges, as well as their employees, for participating in the North Carolina WAY (Worksite Activities for You) to Health research study; and Lori Stravers, Kathryn Whitlock, and the trained research staff who were involved in data collection for this study.

Financial support. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health (grant R01 HL080656-01A1 to NC WAY to Health, based at the University of North Carolina Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cooperative agreement U48DP000059]).

Potential conflicts of interest. All authors have no relevant conflicts of interest.

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Jiang Li, MPH PhD candidate, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Laura Linnan, ScD professor, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Eric A. Finkelstein, PhD deputy director and associate professor, Health Services and Systems Research Program, Duke–National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, Singapore.
Deborah F. Tate, PhD associate professor, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Carolyn Naseer, MA project director, Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Kelly R. Evenson, PhD research professor, Department of Epidemiology, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Address correspondence to Mrs. Jiang Li, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, CB 7440, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7440 (jiangli@email.unc.edu); and to Dr. Laura Linnan, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, CB 7440, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7440 (linnan@email.unc.edu).