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Memo to staff: Shape up or pay up

Indiana employer defends plan to charge employees who smoke, overeat

By Mike Celizic


Updated: 10:01 a.m. ET Aug 10, 2007

Packing a few extra pounds? Still smoking like a chimney, despite all the evidence it can kill you?

Well, if a new practice an Indiana company is putting in place catches on, one day soon your employer could demand you pay a price for your unhealthy lifestyle.

Like a growing number of companies, Clarian Health Partners has for a number of years had a program that rewards employees for getting healthy. But now, Clarian is telling its workers, it's time to shape up or pay up.

“For several years, we’ve had a reward program, where if you cease smoking and do a self-assessment, you receive a reduction in your [health care] premiums,” Clarian president and CEO Daniel Evans told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Friday. "[But] our health care costs were going up and our employees were not taking full advantage of the programs we had in place.”

To combat the problem, beginning in 2009 Clarian employees will be charged up to $30 every two weeks for failing to meet standards set by the company in a number of areas. That breaks down to $10 for a body mass index that’s too high, and $5 each for smoking, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure.

The unique approach is likely to stir controversy, and could spawn lawsuits.

“Getting employees healthy is a good thing,” said Jeremy Gruber, the National Workrights Institute legal director. “[But] are they going to do it by working with employees, or are they going to do it on the backs of employees by charging them money and punitive assessments?”

Gruber advocates programs that offer rewards to employees for getting healthy, which Clarian has had. Other companies with such policies include Dell, Pitney Bowes, IBM, Kellogg’s and Time-Warner.

“We believe, from a lot of testing over the past 15 years, that the carrot is far more effective than the stick,” Pitney Bowes executive chairman Michael Critelli said in a taped interview. His company’s employees can earn up to $225 a year for participating in corporate-sponsored workout programs.

Dr. Robert Goulet of Clarian said on tape that the company’s home state is a factor in the decision to charge workers for not meeting company health guidelines.

“The population of Indiana is one of the unhealthiest populations in the country,” Goulet said. The state has the fourth-highest level of obesity in the United States and the second-highest rate of smoking.

“The ultimate goal isn’t to collect more money,” Goulet said. “The ultimate goal is to create a healthier population.”

Privacy concerns
The problem that Gruber and other critics see is that programs like Clarian’s collect personal medical data on employees.

Today, it’s information on blood pressure and cholesterol. Tomorrow, as Lauer wondered aloud, will it be asking single employees about their sexual habits and their use of condoms?

“You can turn health care into a police state,” Lauer said, asking Evans where the line is to be drawn.

“You draw the line with our program,” Evans said. “Confidentiality — we’ve got these problems thoroughly solved.”

Gruber wasn’t buying that.

“These programs are highly invasive,” he said. “They regulate private behavior. They amass huge amounts of health information. What’s happening to this information? What type of employees’ private behavior is being regulated?

“We’re supposed to be living in a free country." he added. “How do we go about that when employers have policies which dictate how we go about our lives?”