Healthy Workforce Act deserves our support

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I read an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News last Thursday that really impressed me, giving me hope that true healthcare reform may be just around the corner.

The piece was co-written by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. Its purpose was to advocate the proposed Healthy Workforce Act, which the senators introduced last month with the White House’s endorsement.

This bill is a perfect example of the kind of legislation that both parties can get behind. It gives substantial tax credits to businesses that offer a comprehensive wellness program to their employees, encompassing employee gyms, smoking-cessation support, nutrition programs, and other initiatives.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me. Some excerpts from the op-ed (which we’ve re-formatted into bullet points):

  • Corporations are spending untold tens of billions on illness, hospitalization, absenteeism and lost productivity. Wouldn’t it make better sense and better profitability to shift a large share of those health care dollars toward wellness and disease prevention?
  • Chronic diseases account for more than 75 percent of current U.S. medical expenditures. This includes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stress and depression many of which are preventable by changes in diet and lifestyle. Yet less than 3 percent of our health care spending goes toward prevention and wellness.
  • Today’s negative health trends are having a profound impact on the profits and competitiveness of U.S. businesses. Average employer medical costs increased 72 percent between 2000 and 2006 more than 10 percent a year. Employers are bearing the cost of diet-related chronic disease and obesity through costlier health care plans and higher absenteeism rates.
  • Research shows that, on average, it costs four times more to ensure an employee who has diabetes than one who does not. Even worse, productivity losses due to poor employee health are more costly to businesses than medical costs.
  • Workplace wellness programs are economical, typically costing $20 to $200 per employee. And they are a good investment, with some programs producing $10 in returns for each dollar invested.

I checked out the bill at WashingtonWatch.com and saw that 93 percent of those voting in their online poll supported it. That would seem to be a good sign.

However, the bill does have its opponents. As the New York Times reports:

Under Mr. Harkin’s proposal, employers could obtain tax credits for programs that offer periodic screenings for health problems and counseling to help employees adopt healthier lifestyles. Programs could focus on tobacco use, obesity, physical fitness, nutrition and depression, he said.

Growing numbers of employers have adopted wellness programs after finding that they can lower health costs and increase the productivity of workers. Financial incentives include gift certificates and premium discounts or surcharges. Critics say that holding people financially responsible for their health behavior is potentially unfair and that employers have no business prying into their employees’ private lives.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a research and advocacy group, said financial rewards and penalties were often a form of lifestyle discrimination. “You are supposed to be paid on the basis of how you do your job, not how often you go to the gym or how many cheeseburgers you eat,”  Mr. Maltby said.

Let’s hope that common sense will win out over “cheeseburger-lovers’ rights” in this instance.

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