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Employer Wellness Programs May Not Be as Private as You Think

Employer Wellness Programs May Not Be as Private as You Think

Corporate wellness programs have become one of the biggest areas where health data is being collected, with hundreds of vendors amassing millions of pieces of intimate and potentially embarrassing health information on American workers.

According to an investigation by Bloomberg Business News, “Employer Wellness Programs May Not Be as Private as You Think”, approximately 80% of large employers are running wellness programs that ask workers to share detailed health information on themselves.

The data collected can get quite personal, based on interviews with wellness vendors and questionnaires reviewed by Bloomberg News: Do you ever drink and drive? Are you sexually active? What diseases have you been diagnosed with? Are you experiencing stress at home?

In addition to a health survey, 76% of companies with more than 1,000 employees ask workers to give a blood sample to test for certain conditions, like high cholesterol or blood sugar, according to Towers Watson.

At Honeywell International Inc., employees’ blood is tested for the presence of nicotine, high cholesterol and irregular blood sugar, and their height and weight are recorded. Honeywell also asks employees’ spouses to disclose such information if they are on the company’s insurance plan.


Despite the popularity of wellness programs among employers and assurances about their security and confidentiality, more than half of workers said they are hesitant about sharing their health information, and a quarter said they wouldn’t share their data under any circumstances, according to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. More than one-quarter of employees said they were concerned their personal information wouldn’t remain confidential.

Declining to participate in wellness programs can be expensive. Johnson & Johnson employees who don’t take part are ineligible for a $500 discount on health insurance, and CVS makes workers pay $600 more a year in insurance costs. Honeywell imposes a $500 surcharge on employees and their spouses, and employees who don’t participate miss out on as much as $1,500 deposited in their health savings accounts.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) asked a U.S. district judge in October for a temporary restraining order preventing Honeywell from imposing additional costs on employees who didn’t participate. In the EEOC’s motion, it argued that the medical testing isn’t considered voluntary, making it a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While a judge denied that request, the agency said it continues to investigate complaints filed by Honeywell employees. The EEOC is handling most of its lawsuits over wellness programs from its Chicago office.

“Employers certainly may have voluntary wellness programs — there’s no dispute about that — and many see such programs as a positive development,” said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC Chicago district, in a statement. “But they have to actually be voluntary. 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.”

Read more about the Bloomberg Business News report, “Employer Wellness Programs May Not Be as Private as You Think”.

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