Companies in the US are struggling with a 113 percent rise in health insurance costs since 2001. They now want to reward employees for leading healthy lifestyles.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has reported that about 55 percent of all Americans get their health insurance through an employer. The employee pays a part of that surging premium cost.
Workers, in the near future, may be asked to pay a larger part of the premium, but some employers are offering discounts on the worker's share if they agree to exercise regularly, participate in disease management programs, or quit smoking.
Proponents of these wellness plans claim the discounts are effective by offering financial incentives to individuals who agree to make healthier life choices and manage chronic conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, which are major contributors to the skyrocketing cost of heath care.
While there is a dearth of evidence to prove that these wellness programs promote healthier workers and lower-cost medical expenses for companies, the idea seems to have taken off.
In 2010, an estimated 49 percent of employers offered reduced rates or bonuses for participating in wellness programs, according to AON Hewitt consulting. Last year, the number of employers offering discounts swelled to 54 percent, and the trend doesn't seem to have reached its peak yet.
But not everyone is in favor of allowing employers to dictate personal choices of lifestyles just because they are providing health insurance coverage. Some claim it's an invasion of privacy while others fear that it may lead to discrimination against workers with chronic heart disease or diabetes.
Already, states such as California and Colorado are working on protections to prohibit discrimination and make sure that all workers have equal access to health care coverage.
When companies weigh the relative health care costs of obese workers or smokers against the cost of health care for non-obese or non-smoking workers, the financial considerations make a strong statement.
Under current federal law, employers can offer financial incentives for participating in wellness programs that equal 20 percent of the total health care premium. In 2014, that will be raised to 30 percent.