More and more employers are demanding that workers who smoke, are overweight or have high cholesterol shoulder a greater share of their health care costs, a shift toward penalizing employees with unhealthy lifestyles rather than rewarding good habits.
Policies that impose financial penalties on employees have doubled in the last two years to 19 percent of 248 major American employers recently surveyed. Next year, Towers Watson, the benefits consultant that conducted the survey, said the practice — among employers with at least 1,000 workers — was expected to double again.
In addition, another survey released on Wednesday by Mercer, which advises companies, showed that about a third of employers with 500 or more workers were trying to coax them into wellness programs by offering financial incentives, like discounts on their insurance. So far, companies including Home Depot, PepsiCo, Safeway, Lowe’s and General Mills have defended decisions to seek higher premiums from some workers, like Wal-Mart’s recent addition of a $2,000-a-year surcharge for some smokers. Many point to the higher health care costs associated with smoking or obesity. Some even describe the charges and discounts as a “more stick, less carrot” approach to get workers to take more responsibility for their well-being. No matter the characterizations, it means that smokers and others pay more than co-workers who meet a company’s health goals.
But some benefits specialists and health experts say programs billed as incentives for wellness, by offering discounted health insurance, can become punitive for people who suffer from health problems that are not completely under their control. Nicotine addiction, for example, may impede smokers from quitting, and severe obesity may not be easily overcome.