Everyone is worried about healthcare, whether it's the cost, thecoverage, or how legislastive reform will change the way we're usedto dealing with it. Just yesterday, after meeting withrepresentatives of all factions of the healthcare equation,President Obama reiterated his commitment to moving a healthcarereform bill through Congress before its August recess. Details aresketchy, other than suggestions that the plan could center onexpanding Medicare to cover the uninsured (even though therecession has both Medicare and Social Security on theropes).

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Healthcare reform is a huge, complex issue that's tough to getyour arms around. But a recent New York Times article brought itdown to a more human scale, and provides a hint of what could be instore if Washington takes a more active role in healthcareissues.

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The article dealt with Congress's plans to “give employerssweeping authority to reward employees for healthy behavior,including better diet, more exercise, weight loss and smokingcessation.”

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Federal rules currently limit what employers and insurancecompanies can do to “incentivize” employees to focus on preventionand wellness. Several proposals are afloat that would rescind theselimitations as part of whatever federal healthcare reform programgets passed.

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Not that there's anything wrong with that, right? According tothe article, employers currently face some confusing tax, labor andinsurance laws when it comes to offering wellness programs. It onlymakes sense to introduce some standardization to these well-meaningprograms.

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What bothers me about this move is the potential to punishrather than encourage — and the not-so-subtle subtext of lifestylediscrimination.

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Everybody knows that prevention programs are far less costly toadminister than having to treat an illness directly arising frompoor lifestyle choices. But somewhere in the inevitablegray area in between lies the touchy issue of personal freedom— you know, that pursuit-of-happiness stuff that's written into theDeclaration of Independence.

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When it comes to the workplace, we're already living in arecessionary, layoff-driven “buyers' market,” with most statesgiving employers at-will rights to hire and fire. Employees still leftstanding in today's job market are dancing as fast as they can,picking up the slack for their laid-off brethren. It doesn't seemright that on top of everything else, their employers can levyfinancial penalties for unhealthy practices, either on or off thejob.

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And I'm not talking about shooting black-tar heroin or killing aquart of Finlandia before work. Clarian Health, an Indianahospital chain, made headlines several years ago when it announcedplans to deduct as much as $30 per paycheck forworkers it deemed obese.

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We're living in a culture where We-TV can get away with“I Want to Save Your Life” — an “ Intervention”-typeprogram that puts overeating on the same level as drug oralcohol abuse. In this sort of environment, it isn'tthat far-fetched to think your employer could send askeletal guy in Spandex charging into your office to make sureyour carbs are curbed.

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It seems to me that this sort of Big Nannyism wouldultimately be bad for employee retention and productivity, not tomention opening the floodgates for some really nasty EPLlawsuits.

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If employers want their workforce to focus more on thecarrot than the steak, they should use the carrot insteadof the stick. And if Congress wants to help them, legislatorsshould be careful not to introduce measures that could make iteasier to punish workers instead of helping them.

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