Beware: ‘Wellness’ May Be Hazardous to Your Health

For years employers have offered worksite wellness programs, ranging from newsletters or gym memberships to high stakes incentive programs that change your insurance premiums by thousands of dollars if you lose weight, reduce your blood pressure or blood sugar levels, quit smoking or achieve some other health outcome. Although no scientific evidence has yet shown that such programs actually improve, health — and a number of recent studies in fact suggest that high-stakes incentives merely shift, and do not reduce, health care costs — the Affordable Care Act makes an exception to its basic ban on varying premiums based on health status for outcomes-based wellness programs.

Some employers ask workers to complete a Health Risk Assessment or HRA — a questionnaire to gather information on their activities outside the office. Often accompanied by physical exams or blood tests, HRAs typically include questions about a wide range of personal matters, such as…

Fortunately, there are protections, for now. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) actually prohibits employers from asking employees to disclose personal medical information–except when the information is directly job-related or when it is part of a voluntary wellness program. Since 2000, enforcement guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said “voluntary” means just what the dictionary says – that workers can’t be required to participate in wellness programs or penalized if they don’t.

To enforce these protections, last year the EEOC brought three actions against employers for allegedly coercing workers into completing an HRA: one in which an employee allegedly was fired for refusing the HRA; another in which an employee allegedly lost health benefits for refusing; and third in which employees who refused faced a series of financial penalties that could be as high as $4,000 per year for some workers…

Meanwhile, a bill to weaken ADA’s protections has just been introduced in Congress…

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