Issues Involving Employer Wellness Programs

What are the Limits on My Employer’s Wellness Program?

Over the past few years, the use of wellness programs by employers has increased steadily across many sectors. Employers promote these programs, and justify them, by claiming a commitment and focus on the health and happiness of their employees, but many argue that the real driving force behind these programs is money. These programs aim to reduce smoking, obesity rates and chronic illnesses by encouraging employees to have their health monitored, quit smoking and lose weight. The hope of employers is that this will pay off in lower health insurance costs, less absenteeism and increased productivity.

These programs have come under criticism because of privacy concerns (these programs obtain personal health information), the fact that disabled employees simply may be unable to reach some health goals and the fact that their expense may not justify the benefits the employer receives. Those who do not participate, or do not reach certain goals, may be penalized with higher health insurance costs.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) initially criticized these programs as being discriminatory, if they result in higher costs for disabled employees. They recently reversed course and announced that reducing health insurance premiums to encourage workers to get health screening tests or improve health scores doesn’t violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if the programs do not violate the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and federal privacy rules, according to USA Today.

Large employers lobbied hard for the change (last year EEOC sued Honeywell due to its wellness program incentives) and apparently won. An estimated 60% of Americans have health coverage through work and a 2013 Rand Corporation study estimated more than half of companies with at least fifty employees had wellness programs.

Wellness programs may be used as an excuse to raise health insurance premiums on less healthy employees because the evidence showing actual health benefits to employees overall and financial benefits to employers is scarce. Another Rand study suggested that it is mostly the healthiest employees who participate and the health benefits from these programs frequently decrease after a few years.

If you live in the New York City area and have questions about disability discrimination or wellness programs, employment discrimination lawyer Thomas M. Lancia can help.  Call him at (212) 964-3157 today so you can discuss your situation and the applicable laws.