More Major Companies Developing Employee Wellness Plans
> 2/16/2007 3:18:06 PM

It seems as if no one can escape the ever-increasing burdens of the United States' health care system. A growing number of business leaders have taken aggressive action to counter the costs of corporate insurance plans by embracing the idea of "wellness programs" either suggested or required for all employees. In some of the most extreme cases, employees have been laid off due to a refusal to move their health habits into line with the company model. 

The concept is not new, and the logic behind it is appealing. By offering employees  health and weight-loss incentives including competitive prizes and cash bonuses, designing corporate workout facilities, and conducting related surveys and physical exams throughout each year, companies look to groom workers who will be less likely to incur sizable health care bills, thereby saving money and extending their own life expectancies. In the past, however, such programs were exclusively voluntary. Never before have companies required universal membership at the risk of termination. Most have not taken this step, concerned about the possibility of legal action or employee dissatisfaction.

Tobacco is the largest area of contention, with some companies arguing that they should not be expected to pay the healthcare costs of employees whose continuous aherence to such unhealthy habits is tantamount to suicide. If a worker is a regular smoker, sharing in the universal knowlege that smoking severely heightens the risk of bronchitis, emphezema, lung cancer and early death, how can he or she expect an employer to pay for the related hospital stays and medical procedures that become inevitable with the passage of time? The question at hand is how far an employer can reach into the personal lives of its employees. If one wishes to indulge in patently unhealthy behaviors in the privacy of his or her home, does a company conceivably have the authority to punish this individual for quality of life violations? Companies have been experimenting with various formulas to minimize costs since employee health insurance plans became the norm as a kind of recruitment tool directly after the second World War. But increasing co-payments and placing a larger share of the cost on the workers themselves has not led them to healthier lifestyles.

In one high-profile case, an employee of the international Scotts lawn care company, fired after two weeks because he identified himself as a smoker, has begun litigation against his former employer, alleging discrimination. This worker was terminated before he had time to enroll in the company's health care plan or begin their smoking cessation program. His superiors obviously thought his membership in the company was not worth the investment that would theoretically be required to treat future tobacco-related health problems.

As the market for wellness programs expands, we see a rise in the number of companies that specialize in providing comprehensive plans for employees And it's very understandable for bosses, especially those at large international companies with thousands of employees, to work toward reducing overall health care costs, but the Scotts case makes clear that they need to tread lightly when health standards influence job status - it seems particularly unfair to fire employees who have either been slowly working toward a better state of physical and mental health (it can be a very gradual and frustrating process) or haven't even had the chance to start.

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