Several months after Whole Foods CEO John Mackey drew fire for his opposition to President Obama's push for health care reform, the company is dredging up some more controversy with a new program it says promotes a healthier lifestyle for its employees.
The program, known as the Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive Program, offers employee's additional discounts on groceries purchased at the chain. While all Whole Foods employees receive a 20 percent discount on groceries from the store, if they meet certain health related benchmarks, they can get a discount of up to 30 percent.
"Vitality and health is what a lot of people are looking for," Margaret Wittenberg, global vice president of quality standards for Whole Foods Market, told ABCNews.com. "[Employees] like the incentive aspect of it and the opportunity to get an extra discount out of it is helpful as well. "
"We have tiers because we're trying to have it very achievable for people," she said. "Every small step is huge and really makes an impact on one's health."
Details of the program, were first posted online by Jezebel.com. In a letter to employees, Mackey says rewards are given if employees agree to be monitored to meet thresholds across four categories: blood pressure, cholesterol level, not smoking and body mass index (BMI). Commenter's flooded the board, many angry at what they considered a discriminatory policy.
Experts viewed the program in a slightly different light, even if they shared some of the concerns.
"It's an interesting initiative," said Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think it speaks to employers' very real concerns about health costs being high and unhealthy behaviors contributing to it."
But Volpp and other experts say that while the program may be looking in the right direction, it has flaws that could very well lead it to benefit already healthy people without improving employees' health uniformly.
"I would think that the main effect would be to reward employees who already satisfied these metrics," said Joseph Newhouse, an economist with the department of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.
"Employees that were far away from any of these metrics or who otherwise would find it hard to get there, it would not affect them," he said. "So it would depend on how many employees could actually achieve these metrics without a great deal of effort."
Experts expressed two primary concerns about the program, tied the measurements to be used and the strength of the incentives behind the program.
Some of the strata for different discount levels, said Volpp, were based on very fine distinctions that may not make a difference in the real world.
"Clinically, there's very little evidence that differences that small have any significant impact on health outcomes," he said.
With cholesterol for example, he said "If it's an average risk person, guidelines call for LDL less than 130."
And while the incentives program might ask for that to be lowered further, will doing so improve the employee's health significantly? "The data to support that are, let's just say, not very strong," said Volpp.
The use of BMI drew similar criticisms.
Wittenberg pointed out that the World Health Organization uses BMI as a standard when measuring obesity in populations, research has pointed out it is less effective when used to measure an individual's overall health.