USG employees call on system to change rules for smoking fee

Employees of Georgia’s university system are automatically categorized as smokers through the system’s health insurance plan. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Employees of Georgia’s university system are automatically categorized as smokers through the system’s health insurance plan. If employees don’t opt out of that status, they’re charged an additional monthly fee. Employees who don’t smoke have to opt out every year to avoid the fee. The system automatically defaults them to “smoker” status each year.

Opting Out

Tom Hochschild is a sociology professor at Valdosta State University. He says when he began working for the university system ten years ago, he and his wife at the time made it clear they weren’t smokers.

“We sat down with the human resource person at Valdosta State University, and we were very careful going line by line what we wanted and had things explained to us,” he says.

Hochschild assumed his status as a non-smoker would remain the same unless he changed it himself. That was true until 2015, when USG changed the process, automatically categorizing all employees as smokers.

“I would think that you would have to sign something, or at least have to click something saying that you are amenable to the change,” Hochschild says.

Hochschild estimates the fee has cost him more than $2,115 since 2016, even though he doesn’t smoke. He asked for a refund but was denied.

The university system says there are a few reasons why it automatically categorizes employees as smokers. For one, the fee helps cover the cost of medical care for health conditions caused by smoking. Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory’s Center for Ethics, says that’s questionable.

“There are lots of diseases that are related to lifestyle,” he says. “Heart attacks are related to diet, and head injuries can be related to motorcycle riding and or other at-risk activities. We don’t say that we need to capture those costs by putting a motorcycle surtax on.”

Wolpe says USG could just ask employees their smoking status instead of assuming it. The university system says smokers may not self-identify if it did that. Wolpe finds that dubious.

“If you’re going to tell an untruth about not smoking if you’re asked, then why wouldn’t you just opt out equally if you were a smoker?” he says.

Wolpe points out that Georgia’s smoking rate is close to the national average. But typically, the higher the education level, the lower the smoking rates are.

“Universities have a much higher educational level on as a whole than, let’s say, your average company,” Wolpe says. “It’s even more problematic when [USG uses] an opt-out system because they are almost certainly significantly below even the state average of smoking. So they’re doing this in order to capture the smoking of a relatively small percentage of their of their staff and faculty.”

Smoking isn’t allowed on any USG campuses.

Being Misclassified

Wolpe says lower-income employees would be hit harder by USG’s opt-out rule. That also concerns Hochschild.

“I’m a professor, so I’m doing okay,” he says. “But there’s a lot of administrative assistants, a lot of janitorial workers who are making extremely, extremely low wages, and for them to have $2000 or $3,000 taken out, that could be devastating for them.”

Melissa Link is an Athens-Clark County Commissioner who also works part-time at the University of Georgia. She reviewed her pay records and found she’d been paying a tobacco surcharge of $200 a month even though neither she nor her husband smoke.

“This means that UGA has stolen $1200 from me in the first half of this year alone-over 10% of my salary,” she told the United Campus Workers of Georgia labor union.

UCW-G and UGA’s faculty Senate have both petitioned the system to change the opt-out rule after workers claimed to have been wrongly categorized as smokers.

USG says it’s rare for non-smokers to be misclassified through the healthcare system. Since the policy began in 2011, the system says it’s made improvements to the process, including adding alerts reminding employees to check their status. According to USG, employees can change their smoking status anytime and file an appeal. The system says employees charged the fee due to a system error can receive refunds.

However, some employees say a glitch in the system during the 2019 and 2020 Open Enrollment periods still categorized some workers as smokers even after they’d opted out. If they hadn’t caught the mistake, the employees say, they would’ve been charged the fee and wouldn’t have been able to prove they’d originally opted out. Other employees say they’ve tried to appeal their status and either got nowhere or found the process so cumbersome they gave up.

USG says it’s conducting audits and creating reports each year after Open Enrollment to ensure the default functionality is working correctly.