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Carrot-and-stick approach to health

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Walk for an hour a day, get $200 from your employer. Go for an annual checkup, get a $10 gift card. Indulge in tobacco, pay an extra $20 a month for health insurance.

Companies including several major employers in the Albuquerque area are increasingly using carrots and sticks to induce their workers to more closely monitor their health and to adopt healthier lifestyles, in hopes of lowering medical insurance costs, according to some benefits experts.

Employees reap cash and prizes as a reward for good behavior, and those who don’t cooperate may be penalized. And in more workplaces, employees are being asked to participate in blood tests, screenings and questionnaires that their insurers — and sometimes employers — can use to gauge their medical status.

In New Mexico, PNM Resources offers gift cards to employees who take a health risk assessment, which includes testing for high cholesterol and blood pressure. Employees are entered into a drawing for a $200 gift card if they get an annual physical or OB/GYN exam, get a mammogram or colonoscopy, or enter a diabetes management program.

PNM employees get corporate gym membership discounts, and the company pays a portion of a Weight Watchers membership.

Albuquerque Publishing Co. provides free biometric screening to employees and a $75 gift certificate for taking a health risk assessment. Employees who get coaching to quit smoking or lose weight get another $75 gift certificate. Albuquerque Publishing offers free educational events that target the risks identified in the health assessments, and it offers corporate gym memberships.

Intel gives employees a $250 discount on their medical plan for participating in the company’s Health for Life Wellness Check. The program includes biometric data collection at Intel’s on-site health clinic and an online health assessment. Employees can have a free one-on-one session with a wellness coach. Depending on the employee’s personal goals, Intel also provides a customized, four-session program and offers a $50 gift card for completing it.

Presbyterian Healthcare Services pays employees up to $360 annually for completing a number of health-improvment programs. In addition to health assessment and screening, Presbyterian employees earn money for participating in health-improvement coaching sessions and participating in company-sponsored activities such as Run for the Zoo.

Lovelace Health System discounts its employees’ health insurance premiums to reward participation in health-improvement programs. Discounts can reach $50 for employees and $100 for their families each month. Lovelace says 93 percent of eligible staff participate. The company also provides gift cards for participation in healthy-living activities the company organizes.

“With the population aging and a trend in the United States to be less and less healthy … more and more employers are jumping on the bandwagon of health management,” said Matthew Snook, a partner at the Florida office of Mercer, a health benefits consulting firm.

Mercer’s survey of 2,900 companies found that 43 percent give discounts on health insurance premiums and 40 percent award cash or gifts to employees who participate in health screenings or healthy behaviors, such as exercise, weight-loss and quit-smoking programs. About 12 percent charge smokers more for health insurance, usually $10 to $20 a pay period, Snook said.

An Aon Hewitt survey of more than 1,000 employers tallied similar results, and also found 22 percent had programs to reward employees for achieving specific targets, such as lowering “bad cholesterol” below the 130 level or normalizing high blood pressure.

But some unhappy employees call the practice an invasion of privacy. Bradley Seff, a former Broward County, Fla., court reporter, filed a federal lawsuit challenging a 2009 county policy of charging employees $20 extra per pay period if they refused to get a finger-stick blood test for cholesterol and diabetes.

“Even if they had the best of intentions, it’s none of their business. People’s medical records are private and not the business of the employer,” Seff said.

Attorneys said Seff’s suit will be a national test case of employers’ right to demand workers get medical screenings. The case comes up for oral arguments in Miami this month.

For now, experts said they expect to see even more of this. Two national surveys found that by 2016, as many as 64 percent of larger companies plan to start using rewards and 46 percent plan to start penalties.

“Employers are often plan sponsors and laying out a lot of money for this coverage. It’s reasonable for them to decrease that expense level if they can,” Snook said. “The employee benefits by getting an improved quality of life. There’s a lot of benefit across the board, for employer and employee.”

American Express last year paid employees as much as $200 in their health spending accounts if they walked just over two miles a day.

The company’s Plantation, Fla., office had the highest participation in the nation, with two-thirds of the 3,000 workers walking more than 44,000 miles, spokeswoman Anne Marie Taglienti said. This year, the company will give employees a one-year free membership to Weight Watchers, as well as other rewards.