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story.lead_photo.caption Tom Davis, of Springdale, uses a cycling exercise machine Tuesday at The Jones Center in Springdale. The center received $290,000 from the Walmart Foundation for three focus points at the center that includes recreation, meeting spaces and youth programs. The work out area will receive extensive expansion and renovation. - Photo by David Gottschalk

Public school and state employees who smoke should pay higher health insurance premiums in 2019 unless they enroll in a program to quit smoking, a committee recommended Wednesday.

Under the recommendation by the State and Public School Life and Health Insurance Board's wellness subcommittee, employees also would have to complete an online questionnaire about their health and submit measurements on height, weight, blood sugar and blood pressure to avoid the penalty.

The state also would scrap a requirement that employees and their spouses visit a doctor at least once a year. Currently, employees and their spouses who make such visits and complete an online health questionnaire qualify for a $75 discount on their monthly premiums.

"We still cover office visits, and physicians can screen for these conditions in their office, but we're not driving everybody to have a physician visit every year" under the recommendation, said subcommittee member Joe Thompson, director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

The subcommittee was formed earlier this year to recommend changes to the health plans' wellness program, which is designed to hold down employees' health care costs by encouraging healthy behavior.

The plans cover about 148,000 people, including 45,000 school employees and 26,000 state employees as well as retirees and the spouses and dependents of employees and retirees.

The plans have offered lower premiums to employees who meet wellness requirements since 2015.

About 90 percent of employees qualified for the discounted premiums this year, said Chris Howlett, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration's Employee Benefits Division.

Hours before the wellness subcommittee met, members of the state House and Senate insurance and commerce committees quizzed Howlett about the program.

"In general I don't believe the wellness program is robust enough to save the plan money," Howlett told the lawmakers. "I believe it costs the plan money."

Under the subcommittee's recommendation, the health questionnaire employees now fill out would be revamped to focus more on educating employees about their health, rather than on collecting data.

How the state would measure employees' height, weight, blood pressure and blood sugar has yet to be determined. Howlett said some companies have offered to visit work sites to conduct the screenings, which would then be billed to the plan as a covered health benefit.

The screenings would include testing employees for tobacco use. Those who test positive would be required to enroll in the plans' tobacco-cessation program to qualify for the premium discount.

Employees would have to attest that they plan to get a flu shot or have a medical reason for not getting a shot.

Employees would have to meet the requirements next year to qualify for the premium discount in 2019. In future years, employees with a height and weight indicating that they are extremely obese would be required to enroll in a weight-loss program.

The recommendations will go to the board's quality of care committee, benefits subcommittee and to the full board, which will make the final decision on the requirements.

Metro on 07/20/2017

Print Headline: Proposal pushes healthy lifestyles

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