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Price we pay for health insurance isn't all financial
By Loren Steffy, Business Columnist
Houston Chronicle
Thursday, December 20, 2006

My employer wants my blood.

I've been assured that the bleeding will be short and merciful and that it's being done for my own good.

As an incentive, I've been told that if I don't open a vein, my insurance premiums will rise.

My blood will be used to alert me to all sorts of things that may be wrong with me.  I don't really need to give blood for that.  I already get e-mail.

The program is similar to others cropping up at companies across the country.  It's part of a trend being embraced to cut costs in our broken-beyond-repair health care system.

It's easier to give up our blood than it is to address the fundamental failings of health care in the U.S.

Early accounts of similar programs, though, seem to show real benefits.  Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal had a story about a woman in Ephrata, Pa., who credits her employer's program with saving her life.  A blood test detected the early stages of thyroid cancer.

Companies like Safeway, Freddie Mac and Molson Coors Brewing Co. all say the programs have significantly reduced health costs by making employees aware of potential problems, such as high cholesterol and heart disease.  Those alerts make it possible to treat the conditions before they become severe.

In the Journal story, one company estimated that such early detection curtailed rising health costs by about $1.5 million last year.

So why, then, am I, like a lot of other people, reluctant to open a vein?

Giving blood to stave off higher premiums is just one more indignity in the modern workplace.  We can't get a job without handing over a cup of our urine to a prospective employer.

Now, as my colleague Brett Brune reported earlier this week, at least one local employer is using urine to test for nicotine usage, too.  Our pee, it seems, is mightier than our word.

Under the guise of "wellness," a little more of our private identity falls away, consumed by an ever more intrusive public domain.  It may make us healthier, but we pay the price as surely as if we'd posted our Social Security number on the front door.

In an age where you can't count on a bank or a shoe store to keep your credit card information secure, how are we supposed to feel confident that an insurance company won't release medical data?  Or lose it?  Or sell it?  Or simply use it against us?

What's next?

Last year, my employer wanted me to fill out a survey where I confessed to eating the wrong things and not getting enough exercise.

That kept my health premiums from rising then.  So now I will give my blood in the name of saving money.  Next year, perhaps I will be asked to donate a pound of flesh.

That, too, I will probably do if it keeps me from paying more.

But there is an irony to these programs.  Our current health care system is based on the notion that if people don't have to pay for it, they will go the doctor too often.  So the system is designed to curb this "abuse."

Now, having realized that such a system results in higher long-term costs, employers and insurers are talking up "wellness" programs and threatening to saddle us with more of the cost if we don't play along.

We are penalized, and our veins pricked, as if the rising costs were our fault.  Every decision is second-guessed by some faceless bureaucracy that purports to know what's best for us.

Nor does all of this hoop-jumping necessarily work.  Brune's story mentioned Memorial Herman Healthcare System, which couldn't keep its health care costs from rising.  Even with a sweeping "wellness" program, its benefit costs climbed 5 percent.

The lucky ones

Despite all of this, I am among the lucky ones.  As I wrestle with the idea of turning over blood samples to fend off a premium hike, millions of others don't even have the option.

Their premium is desperate hope they hope they don't get sick, and if they do, they hope they can find a way to pay.

The same day the Journal wrote of the benefits of wellness programs, it wrote about a woman suffering from lupus who's watched her benefits shrink as her illness advanced.

It's a reminder that the health care system in this, the most prosperous country on Earth, has become a bureaucratic patchwork that Dr. Frankenstein would envy.

So we give our blood, surrender our urine and fill out questionnaires in a vain attempt to deny the unavoidable truth:  The system is failing us all.

Loren Steffy is the Chronicle's business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at His blog is at