Workplace wellness programs are biased, intrusive and abusive, AARP says

aarpThey keep burgeoning, even though evidence-based research indicates they’re not working. They’re unfair to employees. They intrude on workers’ privacy.  And so AARP, the largest advocacy group for older Americans, is  suing a federal agency to try to curb workplace wellness programs.

AARP says in its suit that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees many workplace practices, must recognize that employer wellness programs are discriminatory, and they violate workers’ rights to keep private their personal health information.

Believing the programs help reduce ever-rising medical costs by encouraging healthier behaviors, employers are offering increasing incentives to get their employees into wellness programs. Some pay as much as 30 percent of workers’ annual health insurance premiums. The New York Times, citing Kaiser Family Foundation data, said  those yearly premiums for an individual average run $6,435. That means a worker could lose as much as $2,000 by declining to join a company wellness program.

But AARP says the EEOC should immediately bar these kinds of incentives, because they are biased against those who are ill and do not want to disclose that to their employers.

The group says the programs aren’t just about encouraging workers to exercise more or to stop smoking, for example by agreeing to sign up for text messages or by visiting monitored web sites to record results. Instead, some employ biometrics, collecting increasingly detailed health information and matching it against known profiles of individuals with chronic or developing conditions. Some collect blood and other samples. Some demand private medical or genetic information. A colleague tells us that one of his recent employers required staffers both to undergo health checks by an MD, then to do many of the same tests with the wellness program, notably measures of weight and blood pressure. Their results did not agree. But to benefit from the company wellness incentives, he was forced into a weight and hypertension program, which neither his employer’s doctor nor his own thought was needed.

I’ve written about the dark sides of these programs, particularly when companies want workers to give up private health information. If employers can’t ask you whether you have cancer or received treatment for mental illness or substance abuse because it isn’t pertinent to your work, why can companies try to get this information, back door, with wellness programs? If you have a chronic health condition (think diabetes, anxiety, depression, or heart disease) and you, your caregiver, and your loved ones are managing it just fine, why should a company program be allowed to butt in?

Workplace wellness programs, an effort to cut medical costs as encouraged in the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, have blown up into a $6 billion industry, the nonpartisan, independent RAND Corporation has found. Its researchers say the programs can help cut smoking and maybe they help with weight issues. But overall they’re expensive and ineffective, RAND says, based on multiple studies.

Most Americans rely on job-based health insurance—not, as news coverage might convince you, on coverage through Obamacare exchanges. So these wellness programs are relevant to lots of people, and ought to be reconsidered.

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