We've reported before on the scam that is the workplace "wellness" program. These are ostensibly voluntary initiatives that aim to goad employees into healthier lifestyles -- say through diet, exercise and smoking cessation -- by offering them a discount on their health insurance premiums or some other benefit. A bill now making its way through Congress would give employers an even stronger hand in forcing workers to give up their privacy. The "Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act," which sailed through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week on a 22-17 party-line vote with Republicans in the majority, is "an ugly piece of legislation," warns Nicholas Bagley of the University of Michigan. The measure, he reports, would "effectively allow businesses to require their employees to disclose lots of sensitive medical data, including their genetic information."
Employers could impose hefty penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programs if a bill approved by a House committee becomes law. Employers, in general, don't have that power under existing federal laws that protect genetic privacy and nondiscrimination. But a bill passed last week by a House committee would allow employers to get around that if the information is collected as part of workplace wellness programs. Workplace wellness programs -- which offer workers a variety of carrots and sticks to monitor and improve their health, such as lowering cholesterol -- have become increasingly popular among companies. Others might charge people more for smoking.
A new bill proposed by Republican legislators would allow companies to require their employees to submit to genetic testing and would give employers the ability to demand access to genetic and other health information. The bill-- HR 1313, or the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act--successfully passed through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce this week on party lines, with all 22 Republicans supporting the measure and all 17 Democrats opposed. The bill is expected to be included in a larger measure related to the Affordable Care Act that would require approval outside of the Republican's current repeal and replace plan. Currently, allowing employers to access the genetic testing of their employees is prohibited by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Passed in 2008, GINA made it against the law for employers to use genetic information to make employment decisions or to limit or classify employees in any way.
Companies love "wellness" programs for a number of reasons. These smoking-cessation, weight-loss and disease-screening programs give workers the impression that their employers really care about their health. Ostensibly they save money, too, since a healthy workforce is cheaper to cover and less prone to absenteeism.
Employer wellness programs can gather medical information from employees and spouses -- so long as financial incentives or penalties don't exceed 30 percent of the annual cost for an individual in the company's group health plan, according to final rules issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Monday. Although such penalties or incentives could run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, the programs are considered voluntary -- and therefore legal, the commission said. The rules seek to ensure "wellness programs actually promote good health and are not just used to collect or sell sensitive medical information about employees and family members or to impermissibly shift health insurance costs to them," the EEOC said. But the final rules drew immediate concern from some groups. Jennifer Mathis, director of programs for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, says the new rule rolls back protections in existing law.