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WellnessOr Orwellness?


In their latest bid to control soaring health-care costs, many companies are ramping up their "wellness programs." Few are pushing the idea as aggressively as Scotts Miracle-Gro in Marysville, Ohio. In our recent Cover Story "Get Healthy—Or Else" (Feb. 26), we described Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn's all-out attack on health-care costs. His bold move to audit, in effect, the health of each employee has helped many on his staff. But some workers found the campaign intrusive. One, Scott Rodrigues, is suing Scotts for wrongful dismissal after he failed a drug test for smoking. (The company says his job offer was contingent upon the drug test.) The story provoked an avalanche of reader commentary. Here are edited excerpts:

Thank you, BusinessWeek, for your article about Scotts Miracle-Gro and their invasive tactics into their employees' personal lives. It is truly shameful that a corporation makes use of data-mining software to "scour the physical, mental, and family health histories of nearly every employee" to invade their personal lives. I will never buy Scotts' products again. — Bob Bevill Merrimack, N.H.

In many ways, wellness is a measure of personal judgment. If employees won't take care of themselves, why would the employer assume that they will take care of the company? — Dick Standaert Colorado Springs

Alcoholics are refused liver transplants. Drug addicts don't get dialysis. Morbidly obese are passed over for knee replacements. Do employees deserve employer-subsidized health-care coverage if they're out of compliance with health? The concept of health care is that the healthy balance the unhealthy in risk assessment and cost analysis. In America, 127 million are fat, 23 million are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and then there are smokers, the chronically medicated, and chronically ill. Where are the healthy to balance the un-? Hagedorn has it right. Reward, encourage, protect the healthy. — MeMe Roth President, Action against Obesity New York

'REMARKABLE LEADERSHIP'

I am 55 years old and have been self-employed for most of my working life. So has my wife. Both of us eat well but moderately, exercise regularly, and are trim and healthy. In spite of our excellent condition, we must pay over $7,800 per year out of pocket for our family's health insurance plan because 60% of our fellow citizens [are] overweight or obese, drink too much, smoke too much, and exercise too little. I find this infuriating beyond words. My view is that those people should pay out of their own pockets for the health consequences of their sedentary lifestyles. I applaud Jim Hagedorn's relentless yet engaging approach to enforced employee wellness and I hope that every company in the nation follows his lead. — Tony Eldon Owner, Bay Area Property Inspections and BayMountain Environmental San Rafael, Calif.

Health-care costs are going through the roof. However, throwing out privacy and discrimination concerns is not the answer. The answer is to uncouple employment and health care. Every industrialized nation on earth, except ours, puts health care where it belongs: on the national level, as a basic function of government that every citizen is entitled to. Hagedorn has discovered that minor incentives don't work in changing long-standing patterns of behavior and/or addictions. So have a wellness program tied to insurance costs, and use the money [to lobby] Washington for something that will really solve the problem. That is universal health care. — Victoria Leo Cary, N.C.

The real takeaway is that we have yet more evidence that employers should be out of the health-insurance game. Jim Hagedorn has shown remarkable leadership and passion in his attack on health-care costs, but would his time and talent not be better spent attacking his competitors or dreaming up more innovative products? — Bob Gilbreath Cincinnati

[Your] article doesn't address what companies can do to improve their own behavior. Employees are working more hours, have less vacation and sick leave, and their wages are stagnant. These working conditions can place great stress on workers. Stress can promote eating disorders, hypertension, depression, immune-system suppression, and other adverse physiologic changes, which can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other negative health outcomes. To bring down health-care costs, it's not only employees who need to change their behaviors.

Disclaimer: Although I am employed by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Health & Human Services Dept., these comments are my own. — Geoffrey M. Calvert, M.D., MPH Cincinnati

Congratulations to Jim Hagedorn for his determined and commonsense policies incentivizing his employees. Jim's decisions are based on the harsh reality that our workforce apparently lacks the basic self-discipline to control its caloric intake and exercise every week. The dramatic effects of today's obese workforce continues to affect our company, with an average yearly premium increase of 30%. It's time to allow the insurance marketplace to segregate based on the lifestyle choices which drive obesity, or we'll all be unable to afford basic health care in a few years. — Dale B. Van de Vrede Scottsdale, Ariz.

I strongly applaud Hagedorn's efforts at health-care reform. In my present work environment of 90 employees, one-third of my coworkers smoke and one third are obese. People often take extra breaks to go down to the parking garage and smoke. Office conversations routinely revolve around what fatty and/or fried foods to order for breakfast and lunch. Our company provides an outstanding array of health care programs yet they are routinely disregarded and sometimes openly derided by employees. Employees who do not even attempt to correct their poor health habits are appallingly naive in failing to understand that their lack of responsibility may no longer be shielded by their employers. — Kevin Mulhare Bridgeport, Conn.

'CREEPY ABUSE OF POWER'

I am all for incentives for employees to get healthier by cutting back on high-risk products and services. But Scotts wants it both ways. Scotts sells legal, high-risk chemicals that cover grass, then seep into public water supplies. Hypocrisy aside, Scotts' policy goes beyond any respectable American business standard. Scotts employees must submit to regular bodily-fluid tests and divulge their entire family's medical history, which involves those who are not on Scotts' payroll or present to consent. This is not visionary business practice; it is a creepy abuse of power. — Anne Jones Woodstock, N.H.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Scotts maintains that all medical data are kept strictly confidential.

Is this just hilarious or is it darkly ironic? Scotts, the corporation that profits by selling countless tons of toxic chemicals for people to sprinkle on their lawns, hassles and later fires a poor sap who fails a "drug test" for cigarettes. I wonder when their "wellness" program will start looking at the health risks to their employees (and the rest of us) who use Scotts lawn products. — Christian Nelson Rochester, Minn.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Scotts responds that all of its products go through a rigorous regulatory process before they are approved safe for use by consumers.


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