What's next at Weyco? Voluntary health tests

Regular evaluations will reduce premiums for workers' insurance

By T.M. Shultz
Lansing State

OKEMOS - Weyco Inc., already known for its tough non-tobacco stance, has begun a new policy this year asking its 186 workers to voluntarily take health exams.

If they don't, workers could see their monthly health premiums rise as much as $65 a month for single coverage and $185 a month for family coverage, said Howard Weyers, company owner and president.

The new policy is an attempt by the medical benefits administration company to reduce health care costs by having healthier employees.

It began last week with a round of exams; Weyers said 91 percent of his employees participated.

During the exam, a nurse takes blood pressure and body measurements, and blood is drawn. Then employees fill out a health risk questionnaire.

"We reduce their premiums if they do this," Weyers said.

Then, every six months, the company will ask its employees to be evaluated by Weyco's full-time lifestyle coordinator, who tests workers' strength, cardiovascular health and flexibility.

If employees participate, they get an additional discount, Weyers said.

That "carrot-and-stick" approach just might do some good, one Michigan State University professor said.

"As long as there's a punishment or an incentive for something, you can have it work," said Professor Deborah Feltz, chair of the university's kinesiology department.

But not everyone is happy with employers who try to control legal, off-duty employee activities.

"It's an extremely paternalistic stance," said Jeremy Gruber of the National Workrights Institute, based in New Jersey. "It shows a true lack of innovation and a complete contempt for employee privacy and for anything resembling freedom. It's really un-American in a very fundamental sense."

Gruber said he sympathizes with Weyco's goal: "Employers are under pressure to rein in health care costs."

But a person's health issues - including weight and blood pressure - rarely have anything to do with how well they do their job, Gruber added.

"I hope we haven't reached the state where we have to give up privacy for access to health care," he said.

It isn't the first time Weyco has made headlines with its health care policies.

In 2003, it introduced a non-tobacco policy that made smoking a fireable offense.

Employees had until Jan. 1, 2005, to stop smoking or face random testing. If an employee tests positive in the random testing, he or she is sent home for a month without pay and then tested again.

If the test is positive at that time, the employee is fired, Weyers said.

This year, the non-tobacco policy has been extended to spouses who are enrolled in the company's health benefits plan, Weyers said.

If a spouse tests positive or refuses to be tested for tobacco, it costs the employee $80 more a month.

The company will try to help the spouse quit smoking for up to 12 months.

After that, the employee may have to pay even higher monthly premiums, Weyers said.

But Gruber said employers shouldn't always saddle employees with the brunt of their cost-savings attempts.

As of Friday, 100 percent of the enrolled spouses had taken the non-tobacco test, Weyers added.

The 72-year-old Weyers said he practices what he preaches: He doesn't smoke and at 5-foot-9-inches, he weighs 160 pounds and runs 15 to 18 miles a week.

"My tests tell me my heart age is 42," he said.

And he wants his employees to be just as healthy as he is.

"We are positive we're doing the right thing," he said.