Health insurance rates are spinning out of control in this country and obesity and smoking are two of the top risk factors for many of the ailments we face and are associated with higher medical costs. How to get Americans to become more healthy is a big question, but many employers are demanding that employees that smoke or are overweight shoulder a greater share of their health care costs.
In a recent article, the New York Times said that this is a shift toward penalizing employees who lead unhealthy lifestyles rather than rewarding good habits. Policies that impose these financial penalties have doubled in the last two years of the 248 major employers recently surveyed. The benefits consultant that conducted the survey, Towers Watson, said that the practice was expected to double again among companies with at least 1,000 workers.
The article said that The American Cancer Society and American Heart Association fear that some policies may discriminate against unhealthy workers if employers are given too much leeway. Kristen Madison, a law and health sciences professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said, “People are definitely worried that programs will be used to drive away employees or potential employees who are unhealthy.”
“Current regulations allow companies to require workers who fail to meet specific standards to pay up to 20 percent of their insurance costs.” The article continues, “The federal health care law raises that amount to 30 percent in 2014 and, potentially, to as much as half the cost of a policy.”
Recently, Wal-Mart sought higher payments from some smokers, reaching $2,000 more than for non-smokers. This amount is much higher than the surcharges imposed by other employers of smoking workers. The New York Times says that the only way that Wal-Mart’s employees may avoid the surcharges is to certify that their doctor said it would be impossible or medically inadvisable to quit smoking. In contrast, other employers will accept registration in a program to stop smoking as a waiver for the surcharges.
Greg Rossiter, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said, “The increase in premiums in tobacco users is directly related to the fact that tobacco users generally consume about 25 percent more health care services than non-tobacco users.” Other employers, like Indiana University Health, offer rewards for employees that do not smoke and achieve a certain body mass index rather than penalizing those that do smoke or are overweight.
The New York Times article points out that “Some critics say Wal-Mart’s surcharge may have the effect of forcing people to opt for less expensive plans or persuade them to drop coverage all together.”