Broward County Florida to regulate workers health related behavior

Broward County government workers will face higher insurance premiums if they smoke. And that might be just the first move toward regulating health-related behavior.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING(MIAMI HERALD)   Add smokers and unhealthy employees to the list of targets in Broward County government’s effort to cut spending.

And overweight workers could be next.

Government workers who smoke will pay higher health-insurance premiums if they don’t quit by the end of the year. Employees also will pay more if they refuse to participate in an annual health assessment and a blood test that screens for conditions from high cholesterol to diabetes.

Each surcharge will add $520 a year to the premiums deducted from an employee’s paycheck. That will be a big windfall for the county government — health insurance for 5,800 workers costs more than $47 million a year.

Smokers say they are being unfairly penalized.

“How can they tell us how to live our lives?” said Sion Mansoor, a longtime smoker who works in the county’s records division. “Even if I wasn’t a smoker, I’d feel that way. It’s totally against what America’s about.”

Higher insurance costs threatened to deepen the county’s financial crisis. A $109 million deficit caused by falling property-tax receipts has forced officials to draw up plans to cut social services and law enforcement as well as the hours that parks and libraries will be open.

The county projected that its spending on health insurance would increase 7 percent next year, but the cost will remain flat after county commissioners approved the twin surcharges and other changes to the employee health plan last month.

Broward joins a growing number of public and private employers that require workers who use tobacco products to pay more for their health insurance coverage. County personnel administrators hope the surcharges will result in improved health and lower healthcare costs.

The county will require workers to sign affidavits saying whether they smoke. Employees caught lying could be subject to disciplinary action. The surcharge will not be imposed until April to give employees time to take advantage of smoking-cessation programs.

At the same time, all employees will be asked to take health-risk assessments, including a blood test. The county will not receive the information, but nurses working through its insurance provider will follow up by discussing health problems with the employees.

William Howard, the head of the union that represents county bus drivers, said he fears the tests are the county’s first step toward invading what workers do in their private lives.

“What will be the deal next year?” Howard asked. “If I drink a six-pack of beer on my own time, will that be a problem? Will I have to run a mile before I come to work?”

While discontent is forming among rank-and-file workers, the new insurance rules are having an impact at the helm of county government. Two of the highest-ranking smokers — Commissioners Ken Keechl and Josephus Eggelletion — said they were quitting.

Keechl said he stopped after the rationale for a surcharge was laid out in an insurance meeting two months ago. Eggelletion said he would stop once he smokes the last of the cigars in his humidor.

Both said they like the idea of encouraging healthy behavior among employees so much that they plan to push for a surcharge next year on the health insurance premiums of overweight workers.

“Smoking is a bad habit,” Keechl said. “I’ve got to do what is right, and it made perfect sense that we charge extra.”

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