By Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News
Federal regulators announced a proposed rule Thursday allowing voluntary employer workplace wellness programs to ask for health information, including some limited genetic details, from participants and their spouses.
According to a statement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency “is mindful that this change creates an exception to the general rule that no incentives may be provided for an employee’s genetic information. Therefore, the agency has interpreted the exception as narrowly as possible.” The release also notes that this exception does not apply to children.
The proposal, which aims to amend rules related to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, also extends the ability of employers to seek health information from workers’ spouses who are covered by their workplace health insurance plans. This can include asking them to fill out health risk questionnaires or have medical exams, so long as the programs are considered voluntary.
Financial incentives for employee participation
Employer groups will likely be pleased by one provision in the proposal, which allows financial incentives to encourage employees’ participation be set as high as 30 percent of the cost of a family health plan, which can amount to thousands of dollars.
An earlier, separate rule – also from the EEOC – stemming from the Americans With Disabilities Act limited that 30 percent to the cost of employee-only coverage, which is much less. (That final rule is still pending.)
Employers had pushed for the ability to tie incentives to the cost of family coverage, saying it parallels what the president’s signature health law allows.
About 56 percent of employers with wellness programs offered financial incentives last year, according to benefits firm Mercer, with 23 percent of large employers tying them to demonstrated progress on health care goals, such as exercising more, losing weight, dropping cholesterol levels or improving blood sugar readings.
The limited incentives, notes the EEOC, can take the form of a reward or penalty, and range from gift cards and gym memberships to discounts taken off of the cost of the health plan.
Getting employees to focus on their health
Workplace wellness programs are increasingly appealing to employers as a means to slow the rise of insurance costs in part by getting workers to pay more attention to their health.
Comments on the proposed rule, which will appear in Friday’s Federal Register, will be collected for 60 days. The EEOC specifically seeks comments on several questions, including whether the rule should address what employers must do to safeguard personal information stored electronically.
It also asks if wellness programs should be prohibited from accessing genetic information from sources such as patient claims data and medical records.
This article is from kaiserhealthnews.org and published with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit national health policy news service, and a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.