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Healthy lifestyle can pay off

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 10:07 p.m.

The shelves in my neighborhood's CVS drug store were jammed this week with colorful Easter candy ­­­— chocolate bunnies, peanut butter eggs, marshmallow Peeps, and even orange jelly beans in carrot-shaped plastic bags.

You would never know it from the displays, but CVS Caremark is the same company that soon will require its employees to report their weight, blood sugar and cholesterol — or be forced to pay about $600 more a year in health insurance premiums.

CVS says it wants to “help our employees to be as healthy as they can be,” and emphasized the workers' health information goes to a third party and no one at the company will ever see it. In other words, no one will be penalized if they're overweight or have high cholesterol. The higher insurance premiums will be imposed on those who simply choose not to participate.

That seems fair enough. In fact, this type of policy isn't exactly new. Employers in the past few years have been trying to lower ever-increasing health care costs. Insurance premiums go up at least 5 percent every year, and somebody has to pay. Some large employers have tried all sorts of ways to curb costs. Wal-Mart, for instance, requires employees who smoke to pay higher insurance premiums.

The majority of employers, however, encourage healthy lifestyles not with penalties but incentives. Some give bonuses to employees who get a physical or take stop-smoking classes. The thinking is that healthy employees will cost the company less because they will not get as sick. The not-so-healthy ones? The more they use up health care services, the more they contribute to those ballooning premiums. We all pay for it, whether we're healthy or not.

When I stopped in CVS, I spoke with a worker who wasn't too happy about having to submit personal information to her employer. She laughed as she told me CVS presumably knows everything about her because she fills her prescriptions at the store. She said she couldn't afford a penalty for non-participation, yet agreed that a nudge to stay healthy isn't such a bad idea.

The irony is that some of the companies pushing these programs are not exactly what you'd consider a paradise of healthy lifestyles. If Wal-Mart is so concerned about smoking that it penalizes its workers, will it ever stop selling cigarettes? And will you ever walk into CVS and see shelf after shelf of fresh fruit in place of candy and potato chips?

Employers aren't entirely off base in promoting healthy lifestyles. Highmark Inc., the region's dominant insurer, gives employees access to a wellness program that includes a fitness center at Penn Avenue Place, Downtown. Highmark says that for every dollar it spends on the wellness program, it's been able to save $1.65 in health care costs.

Hard to argue with that, even if some people complain that they don't want their employer telling them what they can and cannot eat. I don't want that either. But what's wrong with anyone encouraging you to keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol?

After all, if you choose to eat that bacon double cheeseburger and end up with clogged arteries and triple bypass surgery, why should everyone have to pay for it with higher premiums?

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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