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Benefit or Burden - Scotts Agressively Attacks Rising Health Insurance Costs

Scotts- Miracle Grow. Last year Scotts-Miracle Gro spent 22 million dollars for employee health benefits. The Marysville based fertilizer company is aggressively trying to keep the cost down. It has instituted a controversial no-smoking policy and it's built a fitness center at its headquarters.

It's fifteen minutes before noon. A 20-something very fit man leads a spinning class.

His students - six Scotts employees - four women, two men of varying ages peddle fast or faster. They are there to get in shape. In the middle of the semi-circle of spinners is 47 year old Bonnie Hohlbein. The Vice President of Finance for one of Scott's divisions has her numbers at the tip of her tounge.

I've lost 35 pounds. Muscle as a percentage of my body has gone up by about 5 percent, she said.

Bonnie's company wants her and her co-workers spinning. Scotts wants them to get in shape and live healthy. And healthy employees keep Scotts' health insurance costs down.

Faced with surging heath care costs, the Marysville based fertilizer company began aggressively attacking the problem of rising health insurance costs about 4 years ago. Many of its employees were overweight, a lot of them smoked.

First the company did what most companies do - it increased what its employees paid for their insurance. Their premiums doubled.

But Scotts went further - it introduced what it calls its Live Total Health Program. Pam Kuryla is Scotts Senior Director of Benefits. She says the goal is simple, "(We're)trying to eliminate any barriers they might have toward taking better care of themselves.

The two main barriers are cost and convenience. For employee convenience Scotts built a $5 million wellness center across the street from its corporate headquarters and just down the street from its factory. Half of it is a modern fitness center. There are nautilus machines, free weights.. elyptical machines.. and treadmills. One was being used by Michelle Scott Reed

I'm probably going to work three miles This is my lunch hour.. I try to do it every day," Reed said.

The other half looks like your doctor's office.. Doctor Bill Fiorini directs the Scotts Wellness center..

We have all of the things a good doctors office would have.. we have x-rays.. we have a trama room, said Fiorini as he gave a tour.

There are exam rooms, a nurses station. It's staffed by two full time physicians and two nurses There's also a dietician and health coaches.

There's even a drive up pharmacy.

The cost to employees - $10 a month to use the fitness center and the company reimburses it all if it if the worker uses the center twice a week. The Health Coaches are free. Doctor visits have a $15 co-pay. Generic prescription drugs are free.

Those are the carrots. Scotts also has sticks.

One stick is higher premiums. Refusing to take part in the wellness program costs employees money.

In 2007 the health insurance premium for a single Scotts employee on the best plan is about 70 dollars a month. For a family - its about 200 dollars a month. The employee contributes one quarter of the total health insurance bill.

But if an employee refuses to take a health assessment he or she pays an additional 40 dollars a month. If that assessment finds the employee's health is at risk because of something like weight or high blood pressure.. and the employee refuses to enroll in free health coaching . the worker pays another 68 dollars a month for health insurance.

Pam Kuryla, Scotts Senior Director of Benefits says, We've made a large investment and we want people to take advantage of it so we want people to take advantage of it and if they don't they simply have to pay more because they will probably end up costing us more in the end.

And then there's the biggest stick. - Scott's tough no smoking policy.

While most companies prohibit their workers from smoking on the job - Scotts prohibits its employees from smoking - period. Not at work. Not at home. Not anywhere. You can't chew tobacco either.

If you smoke Scotts won't hire you and the company tests applicants for nicotine to make sure. If you work for Scotts and smoke, the company wants you to quit. It offers to pay for smoking cessation programs.

Kuryla says the voluntary behaviors of smoking and chewing go against the company's Live Total Health mantra.

Tobacco use just doesn't fit with that philosophy

While Scotts has not fired any employee for smoking it has refused to hire people who do and that has landed the company in federal court.

Boston attorney Harvey Schwartz represents Scott Rodriques who was hired to work for Scotts Lawn Care in Massachusetts.. but during his probationary period he tested positive for nicotine. Scotts took the job away from him. Rodrigues sued. Schwartz says Scotts is wrongly singling out smokers.

" We'll there are an awful lot of things people do voluntarily that can impair their health. After this they are going to fire people who are overweight, who eat donuts for breakfast. They are going to fire the people who don't exercise ..It's a real slippery slope," said Schwartz.

Scotts executives say they have no plans to extend the smoke free policy to weight gain or other health concerns.

While officials would not comment on the lawsuit, In court papers, Scotts attorneys say as a probationary employee Rodriquez knew he could lose the job if he tested positive for nicotine. Scotts attorneys also point out that Massachusetts has banned police officers from all smoking for 20 years.

The other concern with Scott's program involves big brother. Some workers fear the company will use health information against them. But company officials say they should not worry. The wellness center, while on Scotts property, is run by a completely different company - Whole Health.

There is a little bit of a shadow of concern about that from our patient employees," said Medical Director Bill Fiorini, "However we knew that would be there and we've gone out of our way to point out to them the medical information that's gathered here absolutely remains here and Scotts actually has no chance to get that information at all.

While some still gripe about the program, Scotts message is simple. If you want us to pay 75 percent of your health insurance costs, we have the right to ask you to try to live healthy.