Myth surrounds reform’s ‘Safeway Amendment’

Throughout the health care reform process, politicians have held up Safeway’s health incentive program as a model for future government health plans. The supermarket chain’s program requires employees who fail basic health screenings for blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol to pay higher health insurance premiums. safewaylogo

Safeway maintains that this policy encourages its employees to make healthy lifestyle changes to in turn lower their health care costs. The Washington Post‘s David Hilzenrath looked into the grocer’s impact on proposed health reform plans. Hilzenrath reports on how misconceptions about Safeway’s wellness program could impact public health policy in the U.S. Senate’s proposed Safeway Amendment.

Under a regulation advanced during George W. Bush’s administration, incentives conditioned on meeting wellness targets are limited to 20 percent of the premium – including employer and employee contributions to the premium. The Safeway Amendment would allow employers to increase the stakes to 30 percent, and it would give federal officials license to raise the limit to 50 percent. It would also allow insurers to use the same approach – initially in 10 states and potentially in others.

Employers and insurers would be required to make exceptions for people with extenuating medical circumstances.

Supporters of the amendment maintain that it will encourage private-sector employees to monitor and improve their health. Dissenting organizations, including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, suggest that the legislation will unhinge a central tenet of health reform: That an individual’s health status will no longer impact premiums.

Safeway credits its internal health plan for keeping the company’s health care costs nearly steady between 2005 and 2009. An external survey of 1,700 employers revealed that companies’ health care costs increased by 30 percent in the same time period, on average.

Hilzenrath reports that “a review of Safeway documents and interviews with company officials show that the company did not keep health-care costs flat for four years. Those costs did drop in 2006 – by 12.5 percent. That was when the company overhauled its benefits, according to Safeway Senior Vice President Ken Shachmut.”

2 thoughts on “Myth surrounds reform’s ‘Safeway Amendment’

  1. Avatar photocarey (

    Has Safeway proved that indeed they lowered costs and/or have “healthier” workers? From what I’ve read, it is not clear. A number of things emerge reading about this amendment. What kind of incentives is Safeway communicating? Would this be similar if we were to charge extra for “heavy” passengers on airplanes? Or tax homeowners more who exceeded water and energy intake? Or raise tuition to for students with high cholesterol or BP, or those who drive instead of ride a bike or take the bus? What kinds of systems would these create? What if instead, Safeway provided healthy lunches filled with organic and nutritious food? Offered healthy drinks, gym memberships, spaces outside the building to go for a walk, or allow time for employees to take care of themselves? Pulling back some layers from this argument/amendment might shed light on other systems that need tweaking, opposed with “othering” someone for high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Perhaps building and offering more means to achieving this would lead to a happier and healthier life. And save us all some $ in the long run…

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