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Workers Compelled to Stay in Shape to Avoid Pay Cuts

Starting 2009 if your health conditions dont measure to regular standards then you would see a shrinking pay check, Indianapolis hospital system has announced. Workers, who fail to measure up in five areas, including body mass and blood pressure, will have up to $30 deducted from each biweekly paycheck if they can't prove to their employer that they're working to improve their health. Workers who smoke will pay $5 extra every two weeks starting in 2008.

Clarian Health will be charging workers up to $30 every two weeks for insurance if they let health risks such as smoking or high cholesterol go unchecked.

"I think it's a good idea," said Mindy Blandford, a Clarian registered nurse. "It will cut down on smoking and help people to do better with lifestyle."

But some are not in agreement with the program as they feel it is an intrusion in their personal life. Some experts believe that Clarians approach of charging workers for unhealthy measurements is more aggressive than most.

Clarian said it is giving its employees time to understand the changes and make improvements before most of the extra charges take effect. Employers, who typically pay the bulk of employee health insurance premiums, are allowed by law to use financial incentives in wellness programs to motivate workers to adopt more healthy lifestyles, said Mike MacLean, a partner at Indianapolis law firm Baker & Daniels, giving credence to the Clarian program.

The Clarian move is part of a change fueled by well-meaning, cost-conscious executives who are looking for ways to trim bottom lines along with waist lines.

Now there is a growing industry of wellness advisers, counselors and consultants thriving, as corporate America tries to increase productivity and control insurance costs by helping its employees get healthy and shed pounds.

More employers are zeroing in on obesity and smoking as the primary culprits for the e ver-rising cost of health care. And that means companies increasingly are tracking not only their employees' productivity but also personal information such as their waistlines, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Some companies already have been monitoring employee health habits and sometimes charging premiums accordingly.

About 53 percent of large employers offered health risk assessments for their staff last year up from 35 percent in 2004, according to a survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

A study published in April by a group of Duke University researchers showed obese employees had higher rates of workers' compensation claims, more lost work days and costlier medical bills than their trim co-workers. Workers who were moderately obese had health-care costs that were 21 percent, or $670 a year, higher than workers with normal weight, according to a recent study by Thomson Health Care. For those with severe obesity, annual health-care costs rose 75 percent, or $2,441 per person.

"The truth is CEOs are the ones that have to address it," said Mike Huckabee, the Republican presidential candidate and former governor of Arkansas who created a wellness program for state employees after losing more 100 pounds (45 kilograms).

The prevalence of corporate-sponsored disease management, nurse advice lines and other health-related programs is also climbing as companies find they can no longer trim extra savings out of health insurance policies.

Frustrated by health insurance costs that were growing more than 10 percent a year, Ohio State University launched a massive wellness program last year with the hope of cutting medical expenses.

Organizers hope the initiative, which offers gift certificates and other prizes, will help the school save $30 million (22 million) over the next five years, program spokeswoman Kim Schuette said.

While wellness programs once offered c ounseling or education to only the sickest workers, they're now preaching prevention and more cohesive services that address a range of issues.

This is now fueling the rapid growth of the niche industry of wellness advisers who provide everything from corporate gyms to medical risk screenings at work and healthy grocery lists that can be downloaded on an iPod.

Community Health Network, which began mandatory health screenings in 2005 for all employees receiving health benefits, said its program has been a success, especially in fighting obesity.

Some small and mid-sized companies also have stepped up wellness programs, tying participation in health insurance plans to health screenings and cash incentives. As this is the best chance of lowering health-care costs in the long term.


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