Work wellness programs may help to cut down on hospitalizations, but not overall health care costs, according to one recently released study.

Taking a closer look at data from a comprehensive wellness program at one St. Louis health system, researchers found that offering the premium "gold" insurance plan to only those who participated in a wellness program increased participation. About 82 percent of beneficiaries at BJC HealthCare signed up for the gold plan in 2005 and 2006, following the addition of the perk. And health fair participation leapt from zero in 2003, up to 11,318 in 2006.

The increased participation translated to decreased hospitalizations for five of six targeted conditions. All told, the wellness intervention translated to a 41 percent decrease in hospitalizations for targeted conditions — such as diabetes, hypertensive heart disease, and COPD — and 12 percent for all conditions, the study found.

However, researchers found that a $22.20 drop in per month in inpatient health claim costs was counter balanced by a $19 leap in non-inpatient claim costs, such as prescriptions. Add on top of that a per-year cost of $500,000 to run the wellness program, and it's unlikely that the effort saved money, according to the study.

Some other findings from the study:

  • The intervention lead to a 1.9 percent increase in over all medication days, including 4 percent for anti-hypertensives and 6 percent for cholesterol-lowering medication.
  • Health risk assessment completion also leapt, from zero in 2003 to 17,408 in 2006.
  • "Between the six-month intervals around the 2004 and 2005 open enrollment periods, the rates of new non-inpatient visits for hospital-system beneficiaries significantly increased for diabetes, hypertensive heart disease and ischemic heart disease."