Workplace wellness plans offer big incentives, but may cost your privacy

Sept. 26, 2018

Workplace wellness programs that offer employees a financial carrot for undergoing health screenings, sticking to exercise regimens or improving their cholesterol levels have long been controversial.

Starting Jan. 1, they may become even more contentious. That’s when a federal judge’s decision to overturn existing rules about the programs takes effect. The decision casts uncertainty over what the appropriate upper limit for these types of financial incentives should be—specifically when employers offer them to workers to participate in programs that require clinical testing or the disclosure of their personal health data.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Acts and genetic privacy law, an employer can’t force someone to disclose this kind of private information—any disclosure must be voluntary. The central question is how truly voluntary something is when a large financial incentive is attached.

As a result of the court decision, consultants say, workers may find their employers starting to offer smaller incentives for these programs.

Also, the programs might include more options for qualifying for those incentives—a choice, for instance, between undergoing a medical exam or completing online health education training.

About 4 in 10 employers participating in an informal survey by Mercer, a benefits firm, said they are not sure what they will do about their workplace wellness plans in light of the judge’s ruling.

Eighty-five percent of large employers offering health insurance included a wellness program designed to help people stop smoking, lose weight, or take other healthful actions, according to a 2017 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Just over half of those included some type of medical screening.

Rewards or incentives to participate in these programs vary. The most common are gift cards, fitness trackers, or other merchandise, but some offer significant discounts on what workers pay toward their health insurance coverage.

For instance, the Cleveland Clinic’s version is more extensive than most, says Dr. Bruce Rogen, chief medical officer for the initiative. He describes it as a “population health program,” with differing goals for workers who have chronic diseases like diabetes versus those who don’t.

Full participation, which may require losing weight, keeping blood sugar levels in check, or hitting a gym at least 10 times a month, can save workers 30% off the cost of their insurance premiums. That could be as much as $1,443 a year.

Thirty percent is the maximum an employer can offer, according to rules put out in 2016 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Shortly after the EEOC’s guidance was issued, AARP challenged it in court, arguing that workers who did not want to provide their private medical information might feel coerced to do so because not participating would cost them substantial sums—ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

The argument—from AARP and other critics—is essentially that when incentives become large enough, employees may no longer feel that sharing their medical data is voluntary—because, how can they afford not to participate?

In his first ruling in August 2017, D.C. Circuit Court Judge John Bates noted that the EEOC had failed to provide justification for how it settled on the 30% limit. He also pointed out that 30% of a worker’s health insurance costs could be “the equivalent of several months’ worth of food for the average family, two months of child care in most states, and roughly two months’ rent.”

Bates ultimately ordered the 30% limit vacated as of Jan. 1, 2019, after the EEOC said it would not produce that justification or a new number until 2021.

Now employers who are putting together next year’s health benefit programs don’t have specific rules to follow.

The advice they are receiving from benefit consultants ranges widely, from “drop all incentives and penalties” to “stay the course.”

Few expect employers will stop offering wellness programs outright — because most hope the programs will hold down health costs by getting workers to take steps to improve their well-being. Critics, however, point out that studies show little evidence that workplace wellness programs achieve these goals.

The ruling does not affect some wellness program efforts, such as offering financial incentives for going to the gym or walking a certain number of steps per day.

NPR has the full story

Sponsored Recommendations

Enhancing Remote Radiology: How Zero Trust Access Revolutionizes Healthcare Connectivity

This content details how a cloud-enabled zero trust architecture ensures high performance, compliance, and scalability, overcoming the limitations of traditional VPN solutions...

Spotlight on Artificial Intelligence

Unlock the potential of AI in our latest series. Discover how AI is revolutionizing clinical decision support, improving workflow efficiency, and transforming medical documentation...

Beyond the VPN: Zero Trust Access for a Healthcare Hybrid Work Environment

This whitepaper explores how a cloud-enabled zero trust architecture ensures secure, least privileged access to applications, meeting regulatory requirements and enhancing user...

Enhancing Remote Radiology: How Zero Trust Access Revolutionizes Healthcare Connectivity

This content details how a cloud-enabled zero trust architecture ensures high performance, compliance, and scalability, overcoming the limitations of traditional VPN solutions...