For wellness programs, choice is often sharing personal health data or paying a fine

Programs more effective if they are voluntary, EEOC says

Consumers are hesitant to participate in wellness programs at work because they do not want their employers to know deeply personal information about their health, reported Bloomberg.

Nearly 80 percent of large employers offer wellness programs. About a third of them assess employees a fine--sometimes as much as $1,600 a year--if they choose to not participate, said Bloomberg.

Employers have been known to ask for some very personal information. Seventy-six percent of companies with more than 1,000 employees ask workers to give a blood sample to test for conditions such as high blood sugar, noted Bloomberg. Johnson & Johnson's asks about stress at home. CVS Health used to ask, via a questionnaire, whether employees drink alcohol and are sexually active--though those questions have been removed. 

Some consumers often opt for the hefty fine to avoid sharing their confidential data. Wendy Schobert decided to pay the full cost of her insurance, $5,000 a year, in lieu of participating in her company's wellness program. "My health information is between myself and my doctor," she told Bloomberg

Schobert was fired from Orion Energy Systems one month after declining to participate in the wellness program's wellness screening. Her former employer denies that it fired Schobert for this reason. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on her behalf.

In October, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against New Jersey-based Honeywell over its wellness program, FierceHealthPayer previously reported. The lawsuit stated that Honeywell mandated all employees and their spouses take biometric and medical tests; if not, they face penalties. The EEOC says this policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For wellness programs to work effectively, "they have to actually be voluntary," John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC Chicago district, said in a statement, noted Bloomberg. "They can't compel participation by imposing enormous penalties such as shifting 100 percent of the premium cost for health benefits onto the back of the employee or by just firing the employee who chooses not to participate." 

And voluntary programs can work. Maine-based L.L. Bean, for instance, found through biometric screening that 85 percent of its call-center employees are overweight. The company proceded to enroll 24 employees in a yearlong pilot program consisting of exercise classes, nutrition coaching and emotional counseling, reported The Wall Street Journal.

The result? By the end of the year, participants had lost 15 pounds on average. 

For more:
- here's the Bloomberg article
- read the WSJ piece

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