Companies offer workers more incentives for health changes

More firms are giving employees incentives for health changes

New York TimesNews ServiceMarch 26, 2013 

Employers are increasingly looking to lower their health care costs by using incentives like cash rewards to persuade workers to make better lifestyle choices, according to survey findings released Monday.

But the survey, by Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting firm, also found that employers aren't always so benevolent -- a growing number are also penalizing workers who do not make healthy changes, such as quitting smoking or losing weight.

The survey, of 800 large and midsize employers in the United States, found that 83 percent use some kind of carrot or stick to try to nudge employees to improve their health. Of those, 79 percent offer rewards, while 5 percent imposed penalties. Sixteen percent used a mix of both.

Employers have long encouraged their workers to participate in health and wellness programs, but increasingly they are linking the incentives to measurable results, the survey found.

While a little more than half -- 56 percent -- of the companies using incentives required employees to sign up for programs like health coaching, 24 percent tied their incentives to progress on such measures as a person's blood pressure or body mass index. And the survey found that more than two-thirds of companies said they were considering taking similar measures in the future.

Programs that seek to impose consequences on workers by charging them higher premiums or requiring them to pay a surcharge have come under criticism by some benefits specialists and health experts, who have argued that the policies are invasive and can punish people for health problems that not are always easy to fix.

CVS Caremark, the large pharmacy and drug-benefit provider, recentlysaid it would require its

employees to report their weight, blood sugar and cholesterol or be forced to pay an annual penalty of $600. It also will require that smokers try to quit.

Several other major employers, including Home Depot, PepsiCo and Wal-Mart, have also adopted such policies.

A separate Aon Hewitt survey offered some evidence that incentive programs can change behaviors. That survey, of workers who had taken a questionnaire and then received suggestions for improving their health, found that nearly two-thirds made at least one positive change.

The employee survey was conducted in partnership with the National Business Group on Health and the Futures Co., a consulting firm.

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