Opinion

Unhealthy pay more

Many private employers have used carrots to entice employees to develop healthier habits and reduce company health-care costs. Now employers might decide to use the stick.

Companies commonly adopt policies to encourage employees to stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more and get regular physical checkups. But experts monitoring the American workplace say rules are changing.

Now, personal behavior and bad habits -- even those that employees engage in away from work -- can be grounds for penalties. Those who smoke, for example, may not get hired and could get fired.

Those with high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, high glucose levels and other precursors to disease might be charged more for health insurance. Some employers already test job applicants for nicotine at pre-employment physicals, and if nicotine is found, the applicants are not hired.

One company charges employees $5 per pay period if they use tobacco or exceed specified levels of cholesterol, blood pressure or other measurements. Penalties can reach $30 per paycheck.

We would hesitate to advocate firing employees for smoking or other unhealthy activities. And monitoring cholesterol levels and blood pressure for all employees is impractical. Blood pressure, for example, can vary widely at different times of the day.

But we see no reason why those who willfully engage in certain recognized unhealthy behaviors shouldn't pay more for their health insurance. For example, employees who smoke or are morbidly obese should pay more than those who follow a healthy lifestyle.

A private company, after all, is within its rights to reduce its health-care costs by requiring those at greater risk to bear a higher burden. Employers, of course, take a risk of driving off talented employees, but these are market-driven policies.

Health-care policy already is front and center as an issue in the presidential campaign. Several candidates have outlined elaborate plans that include guaranteed portability of health insurance from one job to another, and a government-sponsored insurance option for those who choose it, no matter what shape they're in.

Those who have unhealthy habits or have health problems already should pay attention to that debate.

IN SUMMARY

Companies have begun charging employees with unhealthy habits more for insurance.

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