Pa. company to test applicants for nicotine

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Geisinger Health System in central Pennsylvania announced this week that it will test all new job applicants for nicotine use beginning in February, and those who test positive will not be hired. Then, beginning in 2013, the Geisinger's health insurance arm will charge a higher premium for current employees who acknowledge that they smoke or chew tobacco.

"This is just the next step in creating a tobacco-free environment and it's just an effort to focus on the well-being of our employees," said Geisinger spokeswoman Marcy Marshall. All Geisinger facilities have been tobacco-free since 2007.

Geisinger is part of a national trend among hospitals and health systems, says Julie Kissinger, vice president for communications for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania -- although that trend apparently has yet to reach Western Pennsylvania.

Spokesmen for UPMC, West Penn Allegheny Health System, Butler Health System, St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon and Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Jefferson Hills all said they either ban or greatly restrict tobacco use on their campuses and offer programs for those who wish to quit smoking, but they do not test job applicants.

"We try to be motivational rather than an approach such as Geisinger's, which is more punitive in nature," said Bart Metzger, chief human resources officer for West Penn Allegheny. He said WPAHS offers wellness programs that include smoke cessation components, and employees who participate may be eligible for reduced co-payments and deductibles.

Ms. Kissinger said she knows of two other Pennsylvania hospitals adopting a similar no-hire nicotine policy, in Bethlehem, Lehigh County, and Ephrata, Lancaster County. The Susquehanna Health System in Williamsport, Lycoming County, has been testing applicants for two years.

"It is my impression that this continues to build upon policies in which hospitals and health systems are trying to establish a model for wellness and more healthy behaviors for the patients, their communities and their employees," Ms. Kissinger said.

Ms. Marshall said Geisinger's new policy was a year in the making, and is modeled after one established at The Cleveland Clinic. She said some of the staff understand why Geisinger is taking a more aggressive stance on tobacco use, and some even welcome the new policy. There are others, though, who are worried. "I'm sure what's going through their minds is, 'How is this going to affect me down the line?'" Ms. Marshall said.


Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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