Government to Give Financial Motivations to Be Healthy

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More than a third of American adults are obese, according to a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. If current trends continue, 103 million American adults will be considered obese by 2018, with projected health care costs to reach $344 billion, according to a collaborative report from the United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention.

Obesity was originally declared an epidemic in the 1980s.  For the past 20 years, even as the government attempted to curb the crisis, obesity in America actually increased considerably.

Michelle Obama’s recent crusade against the illness titled “Let’s Move” and two new bills within the health reform laws are but the newest initiatives seeking to keep the country’s ballooning waist in check.

The bills under health reform aim to relieve the burden of health care costs caused by obesity by giving people an incentive to be healthy. One way to do this is with workplace wellness programs.

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Workplace wellness programs are nothing new. Wellness programs were commonly offered by employers in the past to help improve employee health, but with increasing costs associated with healthcare reform, keeping employees healthy has become more important than ever. These programs will now most likely reward workers for their lifestyle choices. Two new provisions in the bill will offer increased incentives for meeting health status targets.

Starting next year, small employers of 100 employees or less can get up to five years of assistance from a new $200 billion grant to establish wellness programs. The new wellness programs will be focused on promoting healthy behavior such as better nutrition, smoking cessation, physical fitness and stress management.

Beginning in 2014, the bill will also offer reward payments of up to 30 percent of the cost of employee-only coverage (in some cases, up to 50 percent of the cost of coverage) to workers who participate in the wellness programs and meet all the health status targets. The reward is currently 20 percent.

A monetary incentive to be healthy seems particularly appealing considering research that links financial health to physical and emotional wellbeing.  Studies have also shown that company incentives really can help people lose weight and become healthier.

But support for the initiatives have not been unconditional. Dozens of health, justice, and disability organizations have signed a letter urging senators to remove such incentives from the health reform bill. They reason that by rewarding those that meet fitness goals, it unfairly punishes the unhealthy people that do not.

AARP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership group that attempts to improve the quality of life for people over the age of 50, believes that linking employee costs to specific outcomes becomes problematic when you consider that obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are not just caused by behavior alone, but by genetics, physical and mental disabilities, lack of resources, and other life priorities.

Under the existing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, employee health insurance plans are not allowed to vary premiums based on an individual’s health status. What they can and are doing is adding incentives tied to meeting health status targets within the voluntary workplace wellness programs.

The letter was signed by representatives from groups including AARP, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the National Disability Rights Network.

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