Christine White pays $300 a year more for her health care because she refused to join her former employer’s wellness program, which would have required that she fill out a health questionnaire and join activities like Weight Watchers.
“If I didn’t have the money … I’d have to” participate, says White, 63, a retired groundskeeper from a Portland, Ore., community college.
Like many Americans, White gets her health coverage through an employer that uses financial rewards and penalties to get workers to sign up for wellness programs. A small but growing number tie those financial incentives to losing weight, exercising or lowering cholesterol or blood-sugar levels. The incentives, meanwhile, can add up to hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars a year.
Employers say wellness programs boost workers’ health and productivity while helping companies curb rising health care costs. President Obama’s signature health law allows employers to increase those financial incentives. But asking workers to undergo medical exams or give personal medical information is sharply limited by another law, the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits such questioning — except under limited circumstances, such as by voluntary wellness programs.
So when is a wellness program voluntary, and when do employer incentives cross the line and become coercive?
A proposed rule published this spring by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attempts to strike a balance between employers who want to use incentives to drive worker participation and consumer advocates who see penalties as de facto coercion. The plan drew about 300 comments from employers and consumer groups by a June 19 deadline, with plenty of criticism.
The equation tilts too far against workers, said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan
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