News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 24, 2013

EDITORIAL: Step up efforts to improve wellness, live healthier life

Health screenings are a wakeup call

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The trend is not new. For years, private employers around the nation have gradually adopted health screenings of their workers. Employees participating in a company health insurance plan could get a discount on their premiums if they made an appointment with their doctors to get weight, body mass, glucose and blood-pressure levels, and other vitals checked.

Last week, the pharmacy chain CVS announced a new twist. Rather than just reward employees who agree to the health assessments, CVS will also penalize those who refuse. The retailer’s 200,000 workers have until May 1 to get company-paid checkups of body fat, weight, height and cholesterol or pay an extra $600 a year for their insurance coverage, according to a report in the Boston Herald.

The policy jolted the public. Patient advocacy groups voiced understandable concern that such tactics amount to an over-reaction by employers to the rising cost of health care and the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act. They contend that businesses are using the screenings to force out employees with expensive health issues such as diabetes.

CVS defended the plan, calling it “voluntary.” The health check results are for the workers’ benefit and will not be viewed by management, the firm said. The intent is for employees to receive the information and “take action” to improve their physical condition. “Action” typically involves dieting, exercise and an end to smoking. If employees meet two of the company’s fitness goals, they can get an extra $500 deposited into their company health care account, a Denver Post story said.

Those patient advocates rightly point out that participation is not voluntary if refusal results in a $600 penalty.

The debate over the mechanisms to deliver health care to the world’s most prosperous nation will go on. And on. But the CVS policy and others like it over the past decade expose a reality Americans can no longer ignore. Our unhealthy habits have caught up to us. The collective bill as 76 million aging Baby Boomers increase the demands on the health care system confronts us.

More than a third of U.S. adults are obese, and the rate has doubled in recent decades. (It’s tripled among children.) The situation increases our chances of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer. Medical costs for obese folks are $1,429 a year more. As a result, businesses, too, see those costs through the company health insurance plans. Thus, the adoption of programs with rewards and penalties for workers participating in health screenings, smoking cessation and fitness efforts cannot come as a surprise.

The potential for companies to discriminate against employees with chronic health problems should be vigilantly scrutinized by leaders in Washington and in state government. Fairness and human dignity must not be discarded in the process.

But simply using the situation as a tool to argue for or against the federal health care law shifts the focus toward treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Americans and Hoosiers, in particular, need to take more responsibility for our lifestyles. Indiana ranks 49th, almost last, in its healthy behaviors — related to smoking, healthy eating, weekly consumption of fruits and veggies, and regular exercise. It’s a struggle for all of us. The harsh truth, though, is that the cumulative consequences of our individual choices are snowballing.

Indiana should get in front of the problem. Funds to maintain, staff and enhance state, county and city parks should be boosted, along with the trail system. Public awareness of those facilities, as well as community programs for fitness and wellness should be raised from the governor to the mayors. Hoosiers need to get more active. Those health insurance screenings aren’t going to go away.