The state wants its workers to take better care of themselves — to give up smoking or lose weight.
So state benefits officials just introduced a new health care change.
They’re asking workers to assess their health risks and then take online classes to reduce those risks. And as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, if they refuse to do it, there can be financial penalties.
Vicky Scott is a paralegal for the Oregon Worker’s Compensation Board. She’s 52. She says she smokes, and doesn’t really exercise. And she admits she could stand to lose 20 pounds.
That makes her just the kind of employee the state wants to target under its new health care requirements.
“I think that they’re definitely an invasion of privacy.”
And, Scott adds, she isn’t likely to learn anything new.
“I don’t need to have someone tell me smoking is bad, I know it. I don’t need somebody to tell me that being over-weight is not a healthy prospect. I know that too!”
Public Employees’ Benefit Board administrator, Joan Kapowich, says the new Health Engagement Model focuses on education.
“The plan we’ve developed has all the employees and spouses taking a health assessment if they choose to participate. And they would complete an online health assessment and learn about their risks. Now if they have certain risks, say they’re a smoker, they would be required to take a smoking cessation class or work with their physician on some other smoking cessation program.”
Here’s how it would work. State workers will be asked to report how much they exercise, how much whole grain they eat, even their waist circumference. Then for example, if they’re female and over 35 inches around, or male and over 40 inches, they’ll be required to take a weight management class.
“They aren’t required to lose weight or to quit smoking but to take a class and learn about it,” Kapowich says.
Kapowich says all the information will be confidential — so the state won’t know what an employee says in their assessment, or which lessons they take.
She says workers don’t even have to take part.
But if they don’t, they’ll have to pay an extra $20 a month for their health insurance; $35 if both the employee and their spouse are covered.
The hope is that by having a healthier workforce, the state will save money.
But many workers, like Vicky Scott, are not happy and are posting complaints on social media sites.
“My health insurance benefits should not be (predicated) on a insurance company monitoring my daily activities. Taking away essentially my free will to do what I want to do with me and my body.”
But that’s not how all state employees feel.
Guy Tauer is a state economist who lives with his wife and child in Medford. He’s a keen tennis player, biker and skier. And he thinks the new Health Engagement Model is a good, if small step, to reign in health care costs.
“We don’t all pay the same car insurance rates. And if I’m a careless driver, who gets a lot of tickets. I’ll be paying a higher insurance rate. I really think the same thing should apply to health care, that if you make lifestyle choices that are detrimental to your own health, those costs are not just borne by you. But they’re borne by everyone who’s in the pooled risk of health insurance.”
But employees like Vicky Scott worry the new health assessment is the thin edge of the wedge. She’s worried that in the future, employees could get penalized if they don’t meet certain health requirements.
“Eventually it’s going to get to their point where they’re going to start denying coverage. So if you’re applying for a job with the state and you happen to be overweight, then automatically you’re going to be assumed that you have these liabilities. They may come up and say historically we find that these people who are over-weight cost us x amount of money so we can offer you the job, but we can’t cover your benefits.”
She’s also skeptical about the confidentiality of the whole process.
“We’re doing an online survey. You know, how many times have those been hacked. How many times can somebody go and say, oh, gee I want to go and find out all the health problems from all these people? And they can do it.”
Joan Kapowich of the Public Employees’ Benefit Board says all information will be password protected so names will be unavailable to the state.
“We have worked with the Department of Justice to make sure that all of the information is protected. And that it can be shared with your physician if you chose to choose to have it shared with your physician.”
But back in Medford, Guy Tauer says he’s lost 20 pounds over the last few years from excercising and changing his diet. He says the assessments are a logical step for helping people become healthier.
“You know look at some of these chronic conditions that are adding trillions to our national expenses on healthcare. The diabetes, the obesity related diabetes, the heart conditions, the cancers in our society. That have all been scientifically proven to be able to lower you risk through diet, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle choices.”
The new assessments are not the only benefit changes facing state workers this year.
As part of an agreement worked out between the state and the unions, workers will be subject to an array of new surcharges and out-of-pocket medical expenses.