US Congress - Employers may reward employees for healthy behaviors..

May 10, 2009 - In its effort to overhaul health care, Congress is planning to give employers sweeping new authority to reward employees for healthy behavior, including better diet, more exercise, weight loss and smoking [tobacco] cessation. Lawmakers said they would make it easier for employers to use financial rewards or penalties to promote healthy behavior among employees. Congress is seriously considering proposals to provide tax credits or other subsidies to employers who offer wellness programs that meet federal criteria.

Today, chronic diseases—such as cardiovascular disease (primarily heart disease and stroke), cancer, and diabetes—are among the most prevalent, costly, and preventable of all health problems. Seven of every 10 Americans who die each year, or more than 1.7 million people, die of a chronic disease. (Chronic Disease Promotion and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, “Prevention and wellness should be a centerpiece of health care reform.” The White House agrees. One of President Obama’s eight principles for health legislation is that it must “invest in prevention and wellness,” a goal espoused in almost identical words by Republican senators like John Cornyn of Texas and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

A web of federal rules limits what employers and insurers can do now. If, for example, an employer pays the cost of gym membership for employees as part of a wellness program, the payment is often counted as taxable income to employees.

Changes in brain activity, triggered by physical exercise, may help reduce cigarette cravings and help people stop smoking.

Reference: Congress Plans Incentives for Healthy Habits by ROBERT PEAR, Te New York Times, 5/9/2009.