By: Reed Abelson
Source: New York Times
How Healthy Are You? G.O.P. Bill Would Help Employers Find Out
A bill in Congress could make it harder for workers to keep employers from getting access to their personal medical and genetic information and raise the financial penalties for those who opt out of workplace wellness programs.
House Republicans are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier for companies to gather genetic data from workers and their families, including their children, when they collect it as part of a voluntary wellness program.
The bill, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act, introduced by Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina and the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, would also significantly increase the financial costs faced by someone who does not join a company wellness program.
The bill, which is under review by other House committees and has yet to be considered by the Senate, has already provoked fierce opposition from a wide range of consumer, health and privacy advocacy groups, as well as by House Democrats. Critics claim it undermines existing laws aimed at protecting an individual’s personal medical information from use by employer and others.
“We strongly oppose any legislation that would allow employers to inquire about employees’ private genetic information or medical information unrelated to their ability to do their jobs, and to impose draconian penalties on employees who choose to keep that information private,” a group of advocates, including AARP, the American Diabetes Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Epilepsy Foundation, the March of Dimes and others wrote in a letter this week to Ms. Foxx.
As wellness programs proliferate across the corporate landscape, workers are increasingly being asked by their companies to undergo health screenings and medical assessments. Employees can opt out of these programs, and personal information specific to a worker is not supposed to be shared directly with the company. The prohibition is aimed at preventing someone from being fired or otherwise discriminated against because of a serious medical condition.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has vigorously pursued legal action against some employers it claimed went too far and used these programs inappropriately, but the courts have largely been sympathetic to the employers’ arguments. Companies also complained that the regulations were confusing, and the commission issued final rules in May aimed at addressing some of their concerns.
Companies defend the wellness programs, saying they keep workers healthier and help reduce insurance costs. But some studies have questioned the effectiveness of these initiatives.
Critics argue that workers are essentially being coerced into giving up private medical information, such as their weight, their blood pressure and whether they are at particular risk for cancer. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers can entice a worker by offering as much as a 30 percent reduction in insurance payments. Although the financial incentives offered have typically been lower, an employee who refused to participate could lose as much as thousands of dollars in savings.
The bill would also weaken the role of the E.E.O.C. in overseeing wellness programs and its ability to prevent violations of antidiscrimination laws established under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Employers would be generally governed by rules established by different agencies. The bill “is trying to streamline the regulatory scheme,” said Kathryn Wilber, a senior official at the American Benefits Council, which represents employers’ interests.
She said that companies remain committed to protecting the privacy of this information and that employers take this responsibility “very, very seriously.”
Bethany Aronhalt, a spokeswoman for the House committee, said the goal was to address employers’ concerns rather than to drastically change the laws protecting workers. “We want to ensure working families can continue to benefit from these voluntary programs, and so did the Obama administration,” Ms. Aronhalt said. “This legislation will reaffirm existing law and provide regulatory clarity so that employers can have the certainty they need to help lower health care costs for their employees.”
Opponents contend that the bill would leave workers much more vulnerable because the rules under the antidiscrimination laws would not apply if someone volunteered personal health information under a wellness program. “It just takes away the workplace protection,” said Jennifer Mathis, the director of policy and legal advocacy of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
The E.E.O.C. does not comment on pending legislation, a spokeswoman said.
The bill would significantly increase the amount of money at stake by allowing an employer to offer higher incentives, up to 30 percent of the cost to cover the whole family, as opposed to 30 percent of an individual’s coverage cost.
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