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Some employers are offering insurance discounts for health screenings—and that is a good thing

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The living is easy in America these days. Yeah, it's rough for lots of people compared to a couple of years ago, but step back a bit: Compared to, say, life in pioneer times, or the Bronze Age, it's a piece of cake. Or switch the plane of reference, and think about what it takes to get by in Haiti, or New Guinea, or Sudan. This is a picnic in the park.

So, having plenty to eat, comfy places to sleep and minimal worries about being killed by predators, human or otherwise, we've freed up lots of energy to devote to paranoia and resentment.

Case in point: Where I work, in order to get a sizable discount on the health insurance provided by the company, you need to have your basic biometrics checked—blood pressure and sugar, HDL and total cholesterol, body mass and percentage of body fat. The screening is free, conducted on the premises, and takes less than an hour. The results, which are, of course, enshrouded by HIPPA, stay with the insurance company, which runs the whole thing.

Last year, when the program was instituted, every insured employee—along with his or her of-age, covered dependents—qualified for the discount just by being screened. This year, those whose numbers fall into a high-risk category are required to talk to a nurse on the phone, see their doctor (at no cost, within three months) and have him sign a form attesting that they consulted with him about whatever's out of whack.

Next year, people with high-risk numbers may have to show some improvement to continue to get the discount. That's still up in the air, last I heard.

There are several things to notice about this. One, it's free. Two, it's about getting a discount on insurance, not about qualifying for it. (All employees who work a certain number of hours, and their family members, qualify.) Three, if it nudges some people into being healthier, it will save money in the long run. As a bonus, those people will be healthier, which, in my book, is an indisputable good. Life without stroke and kidney failure is just better.

In the department where I work, the program has already had positive effects. A couple of my colleagues who were startled last year by their numbers made changes, and their results were better this time around. Ergo, they are better off.

But they still hate the whole deal.

"It's not that it's a bad thing. It's that they make you do it." "It's just a way to get all this information on us." "What's next? The government decides who can have kids?!" Actual quotes. It's like a Libertarian rally without the beer.

Hey, I dread getting on the scale as much as anyone—who likes being weighed? And hearing the words "body fat" mentioned in reference to my person makes me feel, well, criticized. At the same time, I recognize that the facts are the facts.

In addition, after watching highly paid registered nurses spend a good half-hour taking my husband's health history on several different occasions, I'm a huge fan of the idea of portable, computerized health records, like they have in sane countries. Medical privacy has become a sort of national fetish, one that weirdly outweighs any other consideration, including efficient delivery of care.

So here is what I, naively or not, think about these screenings: First, I obviously benefit when I take care of my health, and periodically facing up to where I'm at helps. Further, no one is forcing me do anything: I am free to skip the screening, keep the fact that I'm mildly overweight a complete secret, and pay the higher rate. That's my prerogative, and my God-given rights as an American are not involved—to my knowledge, there's nothing in the Constitution about health-insurance premiums.

Finally, I believe that no one at the insurance company works for the CIA, or is sitting around talking smack about my biometrics and laughing. Why would they? They don't care. My numbers are of interest only as part of the aggregate. For this purpose, I am simply a member of a group. A group that, like every other one, needs to face reality about health—where it comes from, where it goes, and what it costs.

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