State workers who say they are not obese or do not smoke "may be randomly selected to participate in a tobacco use/weight verification test at their worksite," according to a letter mailed to employees last week.
For those tested, height and weight measurements will be collected in addition to a tobacco-use screening. Exempted are employees participating in programs aimed at quitting smoking or weight loss, or those with medical conditions.
Click here to read the letter.
The Observer's Mark Johnson detailed the changes to the state health plan last week:
"North Carolina is poised to become only the second state to penalize state employees by placing them in a more expensive health insurance plan if they're obese.
Smokers will feel the drag of higher costs, too, as North Carolina and South Carolina state employees who use tobacco are slated to pay more for health insurance next year.
N.C. officials, coping with a steady uptick in health care costs for state employees each year, are aiming to improve state workers' health, which saves money in medical expenses.
"Tobacco use and poor nutrition and inactivity are the leading causes of preventable deaths in our state," said Anne Rogers, director of integrated health management with the N.C. State Employees Health Plan. "We need a healthy workforce in this state. We're trying to encourage individuals to adopt healthy lifestyles."
State workers who don't cut out the Marlboros and Big Macs will end up paying more for health insurance. Tobacco users get placed in a more expensive insurance plan starting in July and, for those who qualify as obese, in July 2011.
Some state employees, though, are criticizing the planned changes. The State Employees Association of North Carolina opposes the tobacco and obesity differentials as invasive steps that could have been avoided if the legislature had fixed the plan.
"It's my understanding they're talking about testing (for tobacco use) in the workplace which, to me, would create a hostile environment," said Kim Martin, a sergeant at Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury. "And it's an invasion of privacy. This is America, the land of the free. I don't think (body mass index is) a very good measure. I know some folks who would have a high body mass index because they're muscular."
The health plan covers more than 600,000 state employees, retirees and teachers at a total cost last year of $2.6 billion. Last spring, the legislature bailed out the plan with an infusion of $250 million to pay the bills after rising costs and inaccurate projections left little money for claims. Over the next two years, the state general fund will pump about $408 million into the health plan.
While officials have not yet estimated any potential savings from the obesity requirement, the higher costs for smokers could save $13 million in the 2010-2011 budget year, Rogers said, emphasizing that the plan's priority is to improve health and save money in the process.
- Doug Miller