Higher premiums for unhealthy lifestyles

Gregory Warner Nov 17, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: A lot of times, studies confirm what we already know. We just needed to see the proof to be sure. So here you go.

Insurance premiums are up. Everywhere. And companies are pushing an increasing share of those costs onto workers. The cost of insuring a family through employer-sponsored health plans has risen 50 percent over the past seven years. Wages? Up 10 percent in the same period.

And, depending on their lifestyle, some people are feeling the pinch even more. From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY in Philadelphia, Gregory Warner reports.

Gregory Warner: At some companies, all of the employees have to submit to an annual test of their body mass index — that pincher on your love handles.

Peter Cappelli: Yeah, they’re measuring how overweight you are.

Peter Cappelli is a professor of management at Wharton School of Business. He says workers who don’t control their diet can get slapped with higher insurance premiums, and smokers who refuse to quit can get charged as much as $10 to $80 more per month.

Cappelli: Now they’re saying if you smoke we’re going to charge you more, and they may say we can’t hire you at all if you smoke.

Nineteen percent of employers charge some kind of penalty to workers who smoke or are obese or have high cholesterol. That’s according to a survey by the consulting firm Towers Watson. The same survey found that twice as many companies will put in those penalties next year.

Now, if you work at one of these places, you might be thinking about, well, lying to your boss. But watch out, says Ray Fabius, chief medical officer for Thompson Reuters.

Ray Fabius: It’s actually not that easy to lie about habits like smoking, and some employers have even instituted urine testing.

Drug tests — for nicotine, or conceivably whether you just ate too many donuts. Of course, there are problems with this approach: One being distinguishing between unhealthy diet and a glandular problem. But also, Fabius says, financial incentives alone don’t change behavior.

Fabius: Manipulating benefits is just one part of a much more comprehensive program.

In other words, the best companies, he says, don’t just test your body fat. They also give you a pedometer, and maybe even some time in your day to take a walk.

In Philadelphia, I’m Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

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