Forced To Be Fit At Work?

Some of the nation's major employers are taking a controversial new approach growing medical costs...and waist sizes.
For Kym Jackson, exercise is a way of life now. Two years of a rigorous regimen have literally transformed her.

As CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds notes, she really does look like a different person now - a completely different person.

But Jackson changed because she had little choice.

Her employer, the Benton County, Ark., government, told her and every other out-of shape worker to get healthy or be punished, because the cost of providing health care coverage for them was getting out of hand.

"I have to tell you, when our plan was hemorrhaging, it was about a bottom-line issue," said Benton County's human resources director Barbara Ludwig. "But it was an employee's bottom-line."

The county raised its annual deductible from $750 in 2004 to $2,750 in 2005.

But it built an incentive into the plan enabling county workers to cut that amount to as low as $500 if they were able to pass yearly fitness tests: cholesterol lower than 160; glucose lower than 126; blood pressure 140 over 90 and no nicotine.

Get healthy, save money.

But many employers were offended - initially.

A prison guard, Andy Bowman, said his first reaction was: "didn't like it."

Why not?

"I didn't want no one telling me I'm out of shape," Bowman said. "No one wants to have it in their face."

Another guard, Mark, said: "I think at first you're a little skeptical, picking on me because I'm fat."

So Reynolds asked the HR manager, "You're forcing a lifestyle on your workers?"

"We had to do something to protect the plan and protect their access to health care. And I think there's a lot of companies out there that are facing the same thing that we were," Ludwig said.

She's right. A growing number of companies are telling workers to get healthy or pay more for insurance.

So, is the plan working? Consider the numbers. Before it went into effect, the county health care fund was nearly half a million dollars in the red. Seventeen months after it went into effect, the county health care fund was nearly a million dollars in the black.

Healthier workers, it seems, are filing less expensive claims.

Couric & Co. Blog: Forced to be Fit
Reynolds spoke with a handful of workers, asking how much weight they've lost. One, Angie, said she'd lost 22 pounds. Mark had lost 40 and Andy had lost 54.

Still, critics worry that some employers have ulterior motives.

"They're looking for ways to cut costs and, unfortunately, some employers are going about it the wrong way, and they're trying to simply push those costs onto their employees," said Jeremy Gruber of the National Work Rights Institute.

Even for Jackson, when the program began she found it intrusive.

"Oh yes, I hated it - I thought it was a violation of my rights," she said.

But she admits being told to lose weight or lose money has paid off.

"I feel so much better!" she said.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.