Wichita Already faced with smoking bans and rising cigarette prices, many Kansas smokers are learning that lighting up will cost them more for health insurance.
And lying about smoking could cost them their job.
A growing number of employers are requiring workers who use tobacco to pay higher premiums in an effort to lower health care costs.
Newton Medical Center recently informed employees that beginning July 1, it will impose a “tobacco-user surcharge” — $35 per two-week pay period — to employees who smoke or have a spouse or dependents who smoke.
“Studies show that folks who use tobacco typically have higher health care costs than those who don’t,” said Todd Tangeman, the center’s human resources director.
“For those who make that choice, it seems reasonable that they would contribute toward their share of the costs.”
Smokers who falsely state on a benefits enrollment form that they don’t use tobacco “will face disciplinary action up to and including termination,” according to a memo issued to Newton Medical Center employees.
Such measures are becoming more common as employers look for ways to battle rising health care costs. Companies that once opted for carrots over sticks — free gym memberships, for instance, or gift cards for attending a health fair — are moving toward surcharges and other punitive measures.
But how far can employers go in dictating workers’ health habits?
Pretty far, say some opponents.
Smoker surcharges “could be the first step down a very dangerous road,” said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.
“If you’re going to charge employees for unhealthy behavior, what about the people who go to McDonald’s for lunch every day? Everybody does something in their private life that their doctor doesn’t like.”
“The question is, where does it end? And the answer is, there is no end.”
Newton Medical Center planned to implement its tobacco-use surcharge in January but delayed the move for six months to give workers time to quit, Tangeman said.
“The intent is to help people make a healthier choice,” he said. “It isn’t to be punitive.
“But this kind of puts a catalyst out there. ... We believe it will help bring greater awareness about the real costs of tobacco use.”
The California-based Safeway grocery store chain made national news last summer for its Healthy Measures program, which rewards employees for healthy behavior.
Advocates of the so-called “Safeway model” compare it to auto insurance, which for years has tied accident risk to premiums. An 18-year-old man with a sports car and two speeding tickets, for example, pays more than a 45-year-old woman with a sedan and a spotless driving record.
Safeway employees who choose to participate in the voluntary program are tested annually in four areas — weight, tobacco use, blood pressure and cholesterol — and receive discounts for each test they pass.
Those who don’t smoke and who maintain healthy weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels save nearly $800 a year on individual health insurance and more than $1,500 for families.
The Wichita school district is exploring similar measures as part of its overall wellness program, said Shannon Krysl, the district’s director of employee benefits and risk management.
“We have people that are fearful of a ’fat tax,’ that kind of thing,” Krysl said. “But really the whole purpose of this wellness strategy is to raise people’s awareness that they have to start taking responsibility for their health status.”