Quit smoking! Lose weight! Boss or Big Brother?

January 18th, 2006 by Julie Ferguson

In the face of rising health care costs, employers are getting more and more aggressive about targeting employee lifestyle issues. Last week we linked to an item about Weyco, a company that is fast becoming the poster child for companies that are implementing behavior modification programs to reduce health risks. Last year, Michigan-based Weyco raised a hue and cry by implementing tests for smoking and firing those who either fail the tests or refuse to take the tests. This year, the company is mandating medical tests and physical examinations for employees, and raising health insurance rates for those who don’t comply.
What’s next, mandating that covered spouses and family members take screening tests too? Yes, according to an article this week in Forbes. The article discusses various ways that employers are using rewards and penalties to try to shape employee health behaviors to minimize risks and the associated costs.

“At some companies, employees who meet specified health targets can qualify for lower insurance premiums.

Beginning this month, employees of King County, Wash., and their covered spouses or domestic partners will be asked to take an annual wellness assessment. It’s voluntary, but those who refuse to participate will pay the highest level of out-of-pocket expenses under a new three-tier benefit design. Those who take the assessment and begin taking steps to improve their health are eligible for the lowest level of out-of-pocket expenses.

A few employers are taking a punitive approach, typically by tacking on a surcharge for smoking. At least four states — Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia — now charge higher premiums to state employees who smoke and lower premiums to non-smokers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

The surcharge for smoking issue that has been implemented in several states is often based on self-disclosure, and has led to a few unexpected turns. In New Jersey, for example, some state employees were snitching on fellow employees, but when the state began disallowing anonymous accusations, the snitching decreased.
It’s clear we haven’t seen the end of these issues. What do you think? Give your opinion in our brief Lifestyle Choices survey. (View results)