2013-08-19 19:24:09 -
WASHINGTON, D.C. (August 19, 2013): A new policy by Penn State, requiring all employees to fill out a detailed and arguably intrusive health questionnaire – covering everything from binge drinking to testicular self-exams – or pay $1,200 a year is very ineffective and inefficient in its stated purpose of holding down health care costs, while largely ignoring the "Elephant in the Healthcare Room," says public interest law professor John Banzhaf of the George Washington University Law School.
While more and more companies are charging employees who smoke a surcharge under Obamacare of $5,000 a year or more for their health insurance – as only partial compensation for the $12,000 a year cost each smoking worker can impose on his employer
– Penn State is charging only $75 a month.
"The cost of one monthly dinner out, or a few Starbucks drinks a week, is hardly enough to persuade a university professor or administrator to quit smoking and save his employer over $12,000 a year in unnecessary costs, whereas $400 a month – and even more for a couple – will certainly provide a powerful incentive, says Banzhaf, who lobbied hard to include the smoker surcharge under Obamacare.
Indeed, notes Banzhaf, companies imposing the 50% surcharge are reportedly finding that it usually halves the smoking rate among their employees, and a Gallop survey shows that a majority already support charging higher health insurance rates for smokers.
Under the new money-saving policy, Penn State employees also must get biometric screenings – including blood-sugar and cholesterol tests, and body-mass index measurements – but apparently no tests (such as for cotinene or carbon monoxide) to determine if they are still smoking.
Mandating tests for cholesterol or blood-sugar, but failing to include a simple blood, urine, or saliva test for cotinene, is simply ignoring the elephant in the medical cost room, says Banzhaf, who participated in a case holding that employers could refuse to hire people who smoke because of the huge $12,000/year cost they each impose on their employer, and indirectly on other nonsmoking employees.
Actually, says Banzhaf, simply requiring employees to fill out health questionnaires saves employers little if anything in healthcare costs, and may even increase spending by forcing workers to undergo extra testing and schedule additional doctor visits.
Many people also find the questions very intrusive. Moreover, while Penn State says that the employee health information will be protected as confidential, recent breaches of computer security at major corporations and military installations suggests that any such guarantee may prove illusory.
Smoking is the largest single preventable cause of unnecessary medical costs, says Banzhaf.
At a time when thousands of college campuses have gone entirely smokefree, and some are even refusing to hire smokers at all, Penn State would do better to crack down on smokers than to force even its healthiest employees to fill out health questionnaires, he argues.
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
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Washington, DC 20052, USA
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