Wellness program criticised for penalising smokers

by Miklos Bolza03 Jun 2016
The governing board of Canton, a town in the US state of North Carolina, has planned a controversial wellness initiative which aims at encouraging staff to quit smoking.
 
“We have a sizable amount of employees who use tobacco,” town manager Seth Hendler-Voss told local Haywood County newspaper The Mountaineer.
 
The concern, he said, was that a catastrophic insurance claim could skyrocket the premiums of the council’s employee health coverage and inflate costs significantly.
 
“We will only see a 3.6 per cent increase in our healthcare premium for next fiscal year,” he said. “The initial renewal quote of 13 per cent made me nervous. We ended up negotiating it down, in part because of our low medical loss ratio … and high wellness program participation.”
 
“If there are ways we can reduce our risk exposure and limit high claims, we should make every effort to do so.”
 
The tobacco cessation initiative was created as a result of these fears and looks at health insurance as a group participatory process.
 
Under the plan, employees will be encouraged to quit smoking. Those who manage to drop the habit in the first year will receive a US$250 cheque.
 
However staff would have to sign an affidavit before commencing the program, effectively agreeing to a financial penalty if they cannot quit and have made no attempt to do so.
 
“You face a surcharge in 2018 or a premium increase of 10 per cent,” said Hendler-Voss. “We don’t want to hurt pocket books, but we need to make sure we’re going to be responsible. We are all in this together and we rely on the health and wellness of each other.”
 
The plan has received a lot of attention with some individuals concerned about its effects.
 
“My phone has not stopped. It does bother me, just the idea of a penalty, and there have been several employees who had an issue,” said alderman Zeb Smathers.
 
Another alderman, Ralph Hamlett, also spoke out against the proposed plan; “Sometimes, a carrot can work wonders, versus a stick to beat someone over the head,” he said.
 
However, Hendler-Voss defended the initiative saying that employees won’t be penalised if they keep on trying to quit. There will also be no penalty in the first year, he added.
 
“I’m warning the board, if we do not keep reigns on health and wellness, we are facing risk,” Hendler-Voss said. “We have been very good to our employees. They are our top resource and priority. You don’t have to quit but you have to be actively trying to quit.”
 
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