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The crisis of obesity and related healthcare costs that is hurtling toward us faster than the speed of sound has employers nationwide scratching their heads over how to combat this double-edged problem.

Company-sponsored wellness programs that reward employees for adopting healthy behaviors that lead to weight loss, smoking cessation, or other health benefits are now offered by nearly one-half of U.S. employers.

Yet, even where those programs are in place, a study by the nonprofit think tank RAND Corp. reveals, less than half of employees participate in health-risk assessments and even fewer participate in wellness programs. Yet, when workers do participate in exercise, smoking, and weight control programs, significant health improvements have been noted.

In an effort to force-feed healthy lifestyles, some employers such as Penn State University are imposing penalties on people who don’t meet certain health requirements.

The university has announced it will charge a monthly fee for not taking part in its “Take Care of Your Health” initiative. Since the university is self-insured, it says that the better health of its employees, the lower its medical expenses.

The Penn State initiative requires that employees annually complete a wellness profile, agree to a physical exam or cancer screening and participate in a biometrics screening. The university said all results will be confidential and cannot be used to reduce benefits or raise premiums.

Any Penn State employee who doesn’t participate in the program will be charged $100 a month.

The university says its goal is “to help employees learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”

Obviously, there is considerable discussion to be had regarding the benefits of a program that offers an incentive for participating versus one like Penn State that penalizes those who opt out.

The goal remains the same, however. Employers are looking for ways to engage their workers to take better care of themselves. The nature of the nation’s healthcare system – which lays responsibility for providing health coverage through employers – is at the heart of this. It also is being driven by the provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act for America, which is striving to ensure healthcare coverage to more Americans.

The real bottom line here is that our society is not a healthy one and the nation’s collective health has been on a slippery slope for decades. The obesity rate is climbing annually, and the associated costs of illness and disabilities caused by it are fueling a dramatic run-up in medical costs.

This is a money issue now, and businesses react swiftly to money issues. But while employers know there is a cost savings to them and their employees, there is a considerable benefit that awaits individual workers who take steps to improve their health and, consequently, their quality of life.

It’s the carrot or the stick. You decide.

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