Some Boone Hospital Center part-timers to lose benefits; smokers won't be hired

Friday, October 11, 2013 | 5:37 p.m. CDT; updated 6:03 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 11, 2013

COLUMBIA — Boone Hospital Center employees working fewer than 24 hours a week will lose their health insurance Jan. 1, and a new tobacco-free policy will prohibit the hiring of nicotine users.

Now, hospital employees working at least 15 hours a week receive benefits. About 60 stand to lose benefits unless they can add nine hours to their work schedules, said Jacob Luecke, a hospital spokesman, via email Thursday.

Some employees will be able to work more to keep their benefits, but that is not an option for everyone, said Rhonda Brandon, senior vice president and chief human resource officer for BJC HealthCare, which owns the hospital.

In addition to the change in health care benefits, Brandon said, BJC will stop hiring tobacco users on Jan. 1. As part of the pre-employment screening process, candidates in the final stages of hiring will have to submit a urine sample to test for nicotine use.

Current employees who smoke will be assessed an additional cost for health insurance beginning Jan. 1, 2015. They will be encouraged to enroll in a free, BJC-sponsored smoking cessation program, Brandon said. Participation and completion of the program will exempt employees from paying the extra fee.

BJC joins a growing number of organizations charging for nicotine use. In 2012-13, Towers Watson & Co./National Business Group on Health surveyed 583 employers with more than 1,000 employees and found 42 percent of the companies impose a nicotine surcharge of $50 a month. Additionally, 4 percent of companies have a no-hire policy on nicotine users, but only when state law permits it.

Missouri has a statute protecting smokers' employment rights, but health care, nonprofit and religious organizations working in health promotion are exempt, said Diane Balogh, a communications specialist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

Brandon cited national studies and research as the key motivator for the nicotine-related changes.

"We have researched this for a while," she said. "Many national articles and national research have proven that the cost for a tobacco user does increase or heighten the cost of benefits for that particular employee, thus creating additional costs for our plan."

According to a September news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Smoking-related diseases cost Americans $96 billion a year in direct health care expenses and $97 billion in lost productivity each year."

In another change beginning Jan. 1, spouses with access to their own employer-sponsored plan will pay $100 a month to stay on the BJC health plan.

BJC has communicated the changes to employees through a print newsletter, individual meetings with employees and question-and-answer forums. The organization employs 27,000 people, 1,731 of whom work for Columbia's Boone Hospital Center.

Brandon estimated that BJC employs 2,000 part-time employees, but she said she did not know how many of them worked fewer than 24 hours a week.

"We did not make these changes in haste," said Brandon, who noted that the response has been mixed. "We are trying to be compassionate and empathetic with the changes we are making."

Health benefit costs will rise 2 percent for BJC employees this year. That's half the national average, Brandon said.

"That's the lowest that we've offered in several years," she said.

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