Making choices for the bigger picture

Filed under: Opinion |

Howard Weyers, the owner of a Michigan-based company, Weyco Inc., instructed his employees this year to quit smoking on or off the job, or lose it. Weyers, who is 70 years old and runs and lifts weights everyday, employs a full-time fitness coach to help his 200 employees adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle. He pays cash bonuses to employees who meet fitness guidelines; he pays for smoking-cessation classes, nicotine patches, acupuncture and related treatments.

Other companies applying the same principles have prompted opinion editorials nationwide concerning what some believe are Weyers and others’ Gestapo-like tactics.

Mike Boyd, CSBJ editor, in a May op-ed, said he didn’t agree with justifying anything because of rising health care costs or employers who think they can control “every aspect of their employees’ lives.”

Boyd also mentioned that he hasn’t seen a doctor for any type of illness since the first Bush administration, “despite engaging in what some employers would consider unhealthy lifestyle choices.” Why should he be penalized?

Weyers and others might argue that statistically smokers and those who are obese or lead couch-potato lives are walking time bombs when it comes to health care. The seemingly invincible are often in denial about the long-term effects of their early choices.

I think Weyers’ decision to employ a healthy workforce is justified. Most smokers want to quit. I quit five times before I threw the cigs out for good. If I had been working for Weyers, I would have gladly welcomed his incentives to help me lose the habit.

As a small business advocate, I see the rising costs of health care as devastating. Isn’t it smart to hire healthy and avoid increases in insurance premiums?

I wrote an article about a Colorado Springs manufacturer whose insurance premiums this year increased more than $2,000 a month because of one employee’s complications from diabetes. To offset the costs, the manufacturer decreased his contribution from 90 percent to 85 percent.

Seventy-five percent of Colorado businesses employ less than 50 people. If insurance costs continue upward, people employed by smaller companies may not be able to afford insurance, even with an employers’ contribution.

There are 20 million uninsured American workers. Expecting that things are going to change without initiating drastic, albeit uncomfortable, measures is naïve.

I spent 10 years working in the health care system. We’ve been talking about the same things – access, rising costs, over-utilization-for 30-plus years. Nothing’s changed. The “system” is still about band-aiding the problems, not preventing them.

Weyers’ reasoning is about prevention-a concept that should be globally embraced.

When I was not employed in the corporate world, my lifestyle choices – weight, smoking – dictated the cost of my health insurance premium.

As a corporate employee, I pay the same as my fellow workers regardless of our health factors.

Granted, the insurance system was initiated long ago to protect the masses from catastrophic medical costs, but today it’s not working. Is it fair to single out smokers or over-eaters? If you want fair, let’s adopt socialized medicine where everyone has access. If not, we have to start somewhere.

I am all for health insurance premiums based on healthy lifestyles. I think we start with smoking and obesity – two tangible contributors to cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, etc. I don’t care if you haven’t utilized the system, you’re betting against your body.

From a Rand health report: Obese individuals spend approximately 36 percent more than the general population on health services, compared with a 21 percent increase for daily smokers. Obese individuals spend 77 percent more on medications. From the Center for Disease Control: Smoking triples the risk of dying from heart disease among middle-aged men and women.

I am for a live-and-let-live society, but I believe in taking care of those who are in need. I also believe in individual responsibility for the good of all humans and rewarding people for taking care of their bodies as they do their automobiles and their yards.

Fostering individual responsibility starts with leaders. Business leaders need to take responsibility for promoting health. Government leaders need to reward companies that promote health.

Traditional insurance plans have permeated an entitlement-to-health-care attitude.

There should be specific tax breaks for companies that implement a health and wellness program, which include hiring fitness coaches and paying for gym memberships, separate from basic employee benefits. Employers should promote healthy lifestyles.

There are some Springs’ employers doing just that: USAA, Phil Long Ford, Intel, Penrose and Memorial. It’s not enough.

Health savings accounts also cultivate individual responsibility and choice. And why not motivate employees through varying employer contributions?

Weyers is not trying to control his employees’ lives-he’s trying to control his costs. What employer isn’t?

Boyd infers that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is in jeopardy with a Weyers’ approach. I say that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone is compromised if we don’t take responsibility for our individual actions. Freedom doesn’t mean entitlement or choice without consequence.

Marylou Doehrman is a reporter for the Colorado Springs Business Journal. She can be reached at marylou.doehrman@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext. 208.