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Originally published February 4, 2010 at 8:40 PM | Page modified February 4, 2010 at 8:40 PM

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Nicole Brodeur

A healthier you — or pay more

My favorite cashier at Whole Foods is a smiler. He's efficient. And he's overweight. So he's probably not going to sign up for the company's new voluntary incentive program, which offers higher employee discounts to healthier workers.

Seattle Times staff columnist

My favorite cashier at Whole Foods is a smiler. He's efficient. And he's overweight.

So he's probably not going to sign up for the company's new voluntary incentive program, which offers higher employee discounts to healthier workers.

Whole Foods is screening employees' blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index (BMI) to determine how healthy they are. If your BMI is 30 or higher, that means you're obese, and that you only get 20 percent off whatever you buy in the store.

But if you lower your cholesterol or knock a few points off your BMI, the company will knock another 10 percent off your Whole Foods purchases.

So if you're fit and thin, you're going to sign up for the program and buy all the bok choy you can carry, at 30 percent off.

If you're overweight, you probably won't. You won't "compete" as much as seethe with resentment and stuff it down with something from the dessert bar. Twenty percent, schwenty percent. It doesn't matter anymore.

Akuba Woolbright, Whole Foods' senior healthy eating and wellness educator, acknowledged that the BMI "is not the perfect score," but she said it's widely used by other companies and seen as the "best tool."

"We hope that knowing their number will give them the motivation to working toward health and well-being," she said. The company will even pay for a week at a "residential immersion program" (can you say fat camp?) for employees "with a long way to go."

I admire Whole Foods' effort to get people to think healthier. King County did something similar in 2005 with incredible results, which I'll get to later.

But I just can't be too quick to praise company CEO John Mackey. He's the last guy you want taking your blood pressure or looking at your chart.

Mackey doesn't think the government should provide health care at all, and made those feelings clear in an op-ed he wrote for The Wall Street Journal last summer.

People just need to eat better, he wrote. We need to repeal government mandates on what insurance companies must cover. Insurers should compete against each other. And we should just leave health care up to corporations. They'll take care of us — right?

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There were protests. Mackey defended the piece to The New Yorker, calling it his "capitalistic interpretation of what needed to be done in health care."

Ah. There it is. Mackey and Whole Foods may profess to want the best for all of us. But he's a capitalist. He really just wants a better bottom line.

And that doesn't bode well for anyone who works for a private company.

It may no longer be enough just to do a good job, to stock shelves in record time, create produce mosaics, or have your register come out even every time.

What will stop employers from following us home, poking around in our cupboards and medicine cabinets, and asking if we're going to eat that, smoke that, drink this and is this your Prozac? Are you depressed?

"The compensation should be based on your doing the job," said Victoria Vreeland, a Seattle attorney who specializes in employment law. "It shouldn't be other things that the employer thinks are good."

Employee wellness programs, if done well and for the right reasons, can be a big boost not only to employers' health-care expenses, but employees' lives.

In 2005, King County started offering employees lower out-of-pocket health-care expenses if they participated in an annual health-risk assessment and follow-up action plan. It provided on-site Weight Watchers meetings and flu shots, and sent out information on diet and exercise.

Perfect. Nonintrusive. Respectful. Everyone treated the same.

It's no wonder 90 percent of the employees are participating. As a result, the county is now spending $18 million less on employee health-care expenses than projected; and county employees and families have made improvement in 12 out of 14 health indicators like body weight and cholesterol.

Whole Foods employees could enjoy those same benefits, but I wonder about the cost — privacy? a job? — and whether Mackey is the only one who is really going to cash in.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

She'll still go there for the cheese.

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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