The buck stops here; taking responsibility for personal health

Ellen D. Hosafros

Two friends and I were enjoying morning coffee at a bed and breakfast when another guest moved to the buffet and heaped his plate full of quiche, banana muffins and cheesy potato casserole. It was impossible not to notice “Joe’s” red face and ample girth. He looked like the before on a poster about chronic illness caused by personal behavior. I felt sorry for this man—until he began to speak.

“I sure am glad my boss isn’t here to watch me eat,” Joe said. “That stupid company thinks it can tell me what to do about my health.”

I felt my spine go rigid.

Joe had been looking for an audience and now he had one. I moved next to him and said, “If you accept group insurance, your plan sponsor has the right to enforce certain conditions.”

You would have thought I had insulted his dog, his mother and his religion. Joe loudly replied, “My company owes me insurance benefits without getting anything in return. And I deserve a (blankety-blank) raise!”

Maybe you’d get a raise if your employer’s healthcare costs weren’t so high, I thought but didn’t say. Joe had already moved on to a blistering soliloquy about his employer’s health and wellness program that requires him to meet certain standards related to health. He complained that his premiums would rise if he didn’t achieve a specified cholesterol level, weight, or biometric target.

Every HR manager or benefits administrator knows employees like Joe, people who don’t take responsibility for their health. They contribute to rising benefit costs, and it’s the employer who ends up paying through the nose. But employees are also impacted by higher co-pays as well as rising costs related to the need for additional prescription drugs, doctor visits and hospitalizations. Joe, it seemed, was his own worst enemy.

I wanted to tell him that employees not only have the responsibility to help lower their employer’s healthcare costs, they have the power to make a real difference to an organization’s bottom line. How?

  • By getting blood pressure and weight under control to avoid or manage chronic illness.
  • By staying compliant on prescriptions and getting regular check-ups.
  • By using generic prescriptions instead of higher-cost brand names.
  • By not visiting the ER unless it’s a real emergency.

The fact that Joe’s company chooses to provide health and welfare benefits says it cares about employees as well as its ability to attract and retain top talent. I didn’t have a chance to make these comments because my two friends were guiding me from the dining room by my elbows. Clearly they didn’t want to listen to an argument about healthcare while on vacation.

If you have people like Joe in your workforce, you can help them to take responsibility for their actions. You can educate them about utilization with a robust employee education and communications program. You can communicate about the importance of health and wellness and provide programs to help them help themselves. You can work to build employee engagement and trust.

Maybe it sounds like I’m being overly critical of people like Joe, but I’m not. A few years ago, I was obese, inactive and feeling entitled to keep my bad habits at any cost. The price I paid was type 2 diabetes, an illness that contributes to increased time off from work, which drives down productivity. The estimated cost of diabetes in 2012 was $245 billion, including $176 billion in direct medical costs and $69 billion in reduced productivity.1

My thinking changed after I went to work in the group employee benefits industry. I learned that employee behaviors are critical to controlling employer benefit costs. I began a medically supervised diet, joined a gym and lost 60 pounds. My health and welfare costs decreased along with my blood glucose levels. I felt my jaw drop when my annual prescription costs plummeted by a third. Even so, my weight is a constant struggle and I have to remain vigilant. No second helpings of muffins or quiche for me.

I’m very grateful for my group insurance, even if it’s one of the most expensive line items in my household budget. I take better care of my health because my employer and coworkers need me to be fully present and at my best. I also expect the same of them.

We all know people like Joe and me—people who are stuck in a rut and others who’ve seen the light about health and can’t resist evangelizing about it, even to strangers. But I believe that taking personal responsibility for health matters because it’s critical to the bottom line, whether it’s an employer’s revenues, a household budget, or one’s own life.