Friday, November 20, 2009

President Obama No Longer Eligible for Employment at Susquehanna Health Systems

According to a new policy that goes into effect on January 1, 2010, smokers, smokeless tobacco users, and occasional customers of a hookah bar need not apply for employment with Susquehanna Health Systems, a health care company in the Williamsport, Pennsylvania area.

According to an article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette: "To further expand its smoke-free environment, Susquehanna Health has adopted a new policy that prohibits the hiring of smokers and other tobacco users. Health system officials and legal experts noted the policy, to take effect Jan. 1, is perfectly legal under state law. It affects every position within the health system."In Pennsylvania, tobacco users are not a protected class under the law," explained health system spokeswoman Tracie Witter. "So prohibiting the hiring of tobacco users is not discrimination."

"Everyone who seeks health system employment must apply online, Witter noted. At that time, they are made aware of the policy. "We have been testing for drugs. We are adding a nicotine component," she said." ...

"We are aware that we may lose some top candidates as a result of this policy," Witter said. "It's really a demonstration of our commitment to promote healthy behaviors."

"The local chapter of the American Cancer Society endorsed the new policy. Announcement of the health system's policy coincides with today's annual American Cancer Society "Great American Smokeout," which embraces smoke-free lifestyles. "As a regional health system and a leader in both medical education and community health improvement, we have an important obligation to practice the healthy behaviors we promote to the general public and to our own employees," said Susquehanna President and CEO Steven P. Johnson."

The Rest of the Story

Let's first get one thing straight. The Susquehanna Health systems spokesperson is dead wrong when she states that: "tobacco users are not a protected class under the law, so prohibiting the hiring of tobacco users is not discrimination."

It's not illegal discrimination, but it sure as heck is discrimination.

The spokesperson herself essentially admits this later on in the article when she acknowledges that she is "aware that we may lose some top candidates as a result of this policy." She is thus stating that the policy represents a systematic exclusion of a group of people from employment upon a criterion that is not directly related to the qualifications for employment. That is, in fact, the definition of employment discrimination.

At least the lawyer gets it right when he defends the legality of the policy on the grounds that while it is discrimination, employment discrimination against smokers is legal: "It is not illegal to discriminate against a smoker. The reason for that is an institution may discriminate against smokers."

That reasoning seems a little circular, but the point is that it is well established that this policy is precisely employment discrimination.

The policy affects every position in the health system, so if President Obama were to apply for the position of Chief Executive Officer of the Susquehanna Health System (please refrain from jokes that with the public option, that's what he is actually doing), he would not be eligible and in fact, his application would not even be considered.

The current CEO of the health system defended the policy, stating that he has an obligation to ensure that the employees of the company practice the healthy behaviors that they promote.

OK, then, is the CEO also going to refuse to hire obese people, since obesity is arguably the number two public health problem (some would say number one) behind smoking and no one would disagree that the Susquehanna Health System should be discouraging obesity? Is the CEO also refusing to hire people who eat crappy diets or who fail to get adequate exercise? Of course not. This is not a policy which comes from a sincere desire to make sure that employees are adhering to healthy behavior; it is a policy which comes from a desire to punish smokers by denying them employment.

If this were a sincere effort to make sure that employees' behaviors are not inconsistent with the advice they are giving to patients, then applicants whose nutrition is poor, who eat too many calories, or who don't get enough exercise would also have to be excluded from employment.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, to see that the American Cancer Society is supporting this policy. Since when did supporting and promoting employment discrimination become a public health objective? It is one thing to embrace healthy lifestyles. It is quite another to systematically punish and discriminate against people who do not adhere to such a healthy lifestyle in one way or another.

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