Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It'll cost state employees to smoke

By Jennifer Brooks • THE TENNESSEAN • April 28, 2009 Current and former state employees have until the end of this year to quit smoking, or pay the consequences. The consequences, in this case, will be a $600 smoking surcharge that goes into effect on New Year's Day 2010 for everyone in the state employee health system who smokes, or has a smoker for a spouse. The hope is that the extra $50-a- month surcharge will provide the extra push smokers need to quit — and save Tennessee an estimated $3,400 a year in lost productivity and smoking-related health claims per worker. "We're trying to create incentives for healthy living," said Brian Haile, deputy director for the state's Division of Benefits Administration, which oversees coverage for some 270,000 adults and children covered by state employee health insurance. "Fifty dollars doesn't begin to cover the costs (of smoking-related illnesses). It will never cover the costs," he said. But having money on the line can give smokers the push they need to quit. "It's been known to triple the effective quit rate if there's an economic incentive for doing so," Haile said. To help smokers quit before the deadline, the state will offer sharp discounts on prescriptions and over-the-counter products like nicotine gum and patches starting May 1. Employees will be allowed to take part in six-week smoking cessation seminars on state time. The state held its first stop-smoking seminar Monday — a 6:30 a.m. gathering at one of Nashville's correctional facilities. Similar seminars will be held in every county and at every agency, with online stop-smoking "webinars" It's not yet known how much it will cost the state to help its workers and retirees kick the habit, but Haile estimated it could cost several hundred thousand dollars. The costs will be offset by the smoking surcharge, once the insurance change goes into effect. With cigarettes selling for $5.50 a pack in Tennessee these days, the prospect of paying an extra $50 a month for health coverage was enough to get state employee Eric Sjodin ready to kick the habit. "I've been thinking about quitting for a while," said Sjodin, an employee of the state Department of Finance and administration and a smoker for the past seven years. Some of his colleagues who smoke are outraged by the policy change, but Sjodin said, "I'm not angry about it. It's definitely time" to quit. When the stop-smoking incentives kick in, Sjodin plans to visit his doctor and get a prescription. He'd tried quitting before, but found it hard when so many people around him were still smoking. This time, the peer pressure may work the other way. Surcharge controversial Jim Tucker, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, said the smoking surcharge has been controversial among the workers his group represents. Starting in the fall, everyone on the health-care plan — including state workers, teachers and some municipal employees — will be asked to fill out a form, identifying themselves as a smoker or a nonsmoker. Anyone caught lying on their form would face civil and legal penalties for perjury and would have to pay up to $300 in damages to the state. Some states, like Indiana, back up their smoking programs with random cheek swab testing of state workers to check for nicotine. But for the moment, Haile said, Tennessee will rely on the honor system. Employees who stop smoking, and stay smoke-free for six months, will be refunded the money they paid in smoking surcharges. Despite the controversy, most workers agree something has to be done to reduce health-care costs, before the state has to impose another double-digit insurance premium hike, as it did a decade ago. "The health plan (cost) has almost doubled in the last five years," said Tucker, noting that some employees think the state shouldn't stop with a smoker's surcharge. "It's been very controversial, just targeting the smokers, when obesity is a much larger health problem for so many people." A growing number of states are imposing smoker surcharges on their employees, including neighboring states like Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama. Haile balked at the idea of an obesity surcharge, although he pointed out that the state does offer discounts for employees to join local health clubs and weight loss groups like Weight Watchers. For more information about the state's stop- smoking incentives, visit the state employees Quitters' Corner: http://www.state.tn.us/finance/ins/tobacco.html. The state also offers stop-smoking help for anyone looking to quit, through the Tennessee Tobacco Quitline: http://health.state.tn.us/tobaccoquitline.htm.

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