Local News

Health plan to begin checking state workers for smoking, obesity

Posted September 17, 2009 6:56 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2009 12:43 p.m. EDT

— As part of a plan to get the health insurance program for state employees back in the black, workers who smoke or overeat could soon wind up paying more for health coverage than those who don't.

Lawmakers approved a $675 million plan in April to rescue the financially troubled State Health Plan. The bailout included a $250 million infusion of taxpayer money and higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments for workers.

The higher costs for workers, which took effect in July, average about $600 more per year.

To help lower costs, the State Health Plan, which provides medical insurance for about 560,000 state workers, public school teachers and retirees, also is putting in place incentives to encourage people to stop smoking and lose weight.

Starting next July, plan members who don't smoke will become eligible to cut their out-of-pocket costs by a third. In July 2011, people whose body-mass index is within set guidelines also could save on their coverage.

Workers must agree to be randomly tested to qualify for the discounts.

"As much as we can prevent chronic disease and support members in maintaining their health and well being, the members will save money and the plan will save money," said Anne Rogers, director of integrated health management for the State Health Plan.

The plan mailed packets about the new wellness initiative to state workers this week. Smoking-cessation and weight-loss classes will be offered, and people who take part will become eligible for the discounted coverage.

"A lot of individuals try to quit smoking or manage their weight time and time again, so we want to give them the impetus. This might be what it takes," Rogers said.

Nine other states offer discounted health insurance to state employees who don't use tobacco, but Indiana is the only other state that screens employees to ensure compliance. Alabama is the only other state to offer incentives for state workers who maintain a healthy weight.

Many North Carolina state workers see the new rules as a penalty rather than an incentive plan. Several who smoke told WRAL News that they don't plan to stop, regardless of the health plan's programs.

Ardis Watkins, director of legislative affairs for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said a program that makes employees pay more for health coverage isn't fair.

"If you want to see a successful wellness initiative, it would need to be something with a positive as an incentive, some carrot measure instead of just a stick," Watkins said. "(Health coverage) isn't a gift from the taxpayer to the state employee. This is something the state employees are earning as a benefit of their employment."

Shirley Jones, a 13-year state employee, said she tries to exercise every day to maintain a healthy weight and is enthusiastic about being able to gain financially by losing weight.

"I've lost 55 pounds with Weight Watchers. I feel better," Jones said. "I'm losing, so that's the main thing."