Companies to Charge Smokers, Obese More for Healthcare Insurance

A growing number of companies are planning to charge their employees more when it comes to health insurance, if they smoke or are overweight. One example is Wal-Mart. Starting in 2012, the discount giant will charge tobacco users higher premiums, but also offer free smoking cessation programs.

Greg Rossiter, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, says that Tobacco users consume about 25 percent more healthcare services than non-tobacco users: "The decisions aren't easy, but we need to balance costs and provide quality coverage."

New policies could dent worker's pay and benefits, as well as reduce their freedom outside of work and make them resentful toward their employers. There are also fears the trend will hurt the lower-paid hardest as health costs can eat up a bigger slice of their disposable income and because they may not have much access to gyms and fresh food in their neighborhoods.

"It's not inherently wrong to hold people responsible," says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a research and advocacy organization on employment issues based in Princeton, New Jersey. "But it's a dangerous precedent," he says. "Everything you do in your personal private life affects your health."

Overall, the use of penalties is expected to climb in 2012 to almost 40 percent of large and mid-sized companies, up from 19 percent this year and only 8 percent in 2009, according to an October survey by consulting firm Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health.

The penalties include higher premiums and deductibles for individuals who failed to participate in health management activities as well as those who engaged in risky health behaviors such as smoking.

"Nothing else has worked to control health trends," says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health, which represents large employers on health and benefits issues. "A financial incentive reduces that procrastination."

An Aon Hewitt survey released in June found that almost half of employers expect by 2016 to have programs that penalize workers "for not achieving specific health outcomes" such as lowering their weight, up from 10 percent in 2011.

This may or may not be legal.

The 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevents workers from being discriminated against on the basis of health if they're in a group health insurance plan. But HIPAA also allows employers to offer wellness programs and to offer incentives of up to 20 percent of the cost for participation.

President Obama's big health care reform, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will enable employers beginning in 2014 to bump that difference in premiums to 30 percent and potentially up to 50 percent.

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