Workplace wellness programs that offer employees a financial carrot for undergoing health screenings, sticking to exercise regimens or improving their cholesterol levels have long been controversial.
Next year, they may become even more contentious. Two recent court rulings have cast uncertainty over what is the appropriate limit for financial incentives that employers can offer workers to participate in programs that require clinical testing or disclosure of personal health data. The dollar amount is subject to debate because it raises questions about when the incentives become so high that employees feel they don’t have a choice about participating.
As a result, workers may find programs offer smaller incentives, consultants say. Also, programs might give employees options for qualifying for those incentives — a choice, for instance, between undergoing a medical exam or completing online health education modules.
About 4 in 10 employers participating in an informal survey by benefits firm Mercer said “they really were not sure what they would do,” said Steven Noeldner, its senior consultant in total health management specialty practice. “Some are modifying … others are taking a wait-and-see-attitude.”
Eighty-five percent of large employers offering health insurance included a wellness program designed to help people stop smoking, lose weight or take other healthful actions, according to a 2017 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.) Just over half of those included some type of medical screening. Rewards or incentives to participate vary. The most common are gift cards, fitness trackers or other merchandise, or discounts on what workers pay toward their health insurance coverage.
The Cleveland Clinic’s version is more extensive than most, said Dr. Bruce Rogen, chief medical officer for the effort. He described it as a “population health program,” with differing goals for workers who have chronic diseases like diabetes versus those who don’t.
Full participation, which may mean losing weight, keeping blood sugar levels in check or hitting a gym at least 10 times a month, can save workers 30 percent in insurance premiums. That could be as much as $1,443 a year.
“Part of what makes the plan work is the fact we can offer that benefit discount,” Rogen said.
That 30 percent amount is the ceiling set in a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rule for what an employer can offer.
But it’s also the point that leads critics to question when incentives become significant enough that employees no longer feel that participation is voluntary.
“You and I can look at the same incentive and you will find it’s truly voluntary and I would say, given my financial circumstances, I feel I’m being compelled,” said Tom Luetkemeyer, an attorney specializing in employment law at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago.
Shortly after the EEOC’s guidance was issued, the AARP challenged it in court, arguing that workers who did not want to provide medical information could feel coerced to do so because not participating would cost them substantial sums, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.