While there's debate over whether it's appropriate for companies to try to manage the personal health habits of employees, one fact is certain. A healthy employee costs less when it comes to medical coverage and productivity.
Companies pushing healthy behavior
"We know from evidence that smoking is linked to cancer; obesity is linked to a variety of diseases including diabetes, cardiac, bone and joint problems. If a company is paying for a percentage of employee health benefits, then they should have a seat at the table and ask how is that employee taking care of his health," says Robert Miller, president of Cooper Research, a health care market research company in Cincinnati.
"You could argue whether employers have a right to do this, but employers are reacting the way they are because they're the ones who wind up paying for it through higher premiums," adds Paul Fronstin, director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute's health research program.
"Companies are desperately trying to control their costs. They're trying to give employees incentives so they can change their behavior" and lessen the risk of disease and the costs associated with it.
At Safeway, the California-based supermarket chain, employees are tested for smoking, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If they pass all four measures, annual health care insurance premiums are reduced $780 for individuals and $1,560 for families. If they fail any of those measures, they don't get the discounts but can be tested again in 12 months. Employees who show improvement can get money back for paying the higher premiums.
Since Safeway implemented these and other incentives five years ago, CEO Steven Burd has said publicly that the company's health care costs have been flat while most other employers face rising costs. Burd has also launched the Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform to promote similar health policies nationally.
Newton Medical Center in Newton, Kan., has imposed a "tobacco-user surcharge" of $35 per two-week pay period on employees who smoke or have a spouse or dependent who smokes and is on the health care plan. Employees who falsely state on benefits enrollment forms that they don't smoke face disciplinary action and possible termination, the Wichita Eagle newspaper reported in June.
Cathy Tripp says the moves by employers to impose healthy habits onto employees "is an emerging hot area" as companies continue to find ways to improve their bottom lines.
"For many years, employers have been offering incentives, but now they're saying, you have to do more to get a discount," she says. "There are more demands on employees to take ownership of their health."
Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.