Do worker wellness programs violate employee privacy?

Employees are split on whether employer wellness programs intrude on privacy, according to an Issue Brief from the Center for Studying Health System Change (CSHC).

The report details the results of interviews conducted in 2007 in 12 metropolitan American communities: Boston, Cleveland, Greenville, Indianapolis, Lansing, Little Rock, Miami, northern New Jersey, Orange County, Phoenix, Seattle, and Syracuse.

Employee wellness programs are growing in the marketplace as employers try to stem ever-increasing costs, both direct and indirect. This is real money: a report from the American Hospital Association estimated that three chronic diseases — asthma, diabetes and hypertension — accounted for 164 million days of absenteeism each year which cost cost employers $30 billion.

The new employer wellness programs go beyond the archetype health
fairs, blood pressure screenings, and brown-bag lunch information
sessions. This new era in wellness is focusing on health risk
assessments, with an aggressive focus on weight management, smoking
cessation and fitness.

And there’s where some people see the programs rubbing up against employee privacy.

The concerns are how the data that employees report in health risk
appraisals could be used by employers. Employees are concerned that
this information could be used to reduce benefits or for even more
egregious purposes. This is driving health plans to develop systems to
ensure enrollee privacy.

Because these programs are voluntary, employers are providing
incentives to ‘nudge’ employees to join up. These prizes are typically,
according to the CSHC, cash payments for the completion of a health
risk assessment, gift cards, gym membership discounts, and
reimbursement for weight loss programs. It’s more carrot than stick,
consistent with what behavioral economists are recommending in
treatises like the book Nudge.

Jane’s Hot Points: The Center points out that for employees to
join up and stick with wellness programs over the long term, employers
need to demonstrate these programs’ effectiveness as well as continued
vigilance in keeping personal data private. In doing so, the programs
will garner credibility and trust and, ultimately, drive population
health up and costs down.

6 replies »

  1. I have always lived healthy, if the “incentive” for participating in the wellness program is considered legitimate then the insurance company should be paying me a big huge lump sum for all the years I have paid without needing it because I am already healthy. Where was my “incentive” over the last 15 years? The whole point of participating in an insurance pool is to spread out the financial risk of a major medical catastrophe, as soon as the idea of causing everyone to be “more healthy” becomes an indidual focus and those that don’t participate are penalized for it then you are undermining the entire model of insurance because you are now turning the risk pool into a pool of 1. In other words if I have to pay more and more because I don’t jump through the hoops of the wellness program then I might as well pay all my own medical bills and quit paying insurance all together (oh I forgot that is not legal anymore!!) since I am paying far more to the insurance company than I am likely to ever pay the doctors. I do not participate in my companies “wellness program” and never will since it is a bunch of smoke and mirrors and no matter how many hoops you jump through they will continue to charge you more year by year. I always ask my coworkers who feel “forced” to participate how it feels living on the plantation. As long as the insurance industry is in bed with politicians and regulations on the industry continue to manipulate the market insurance prices will continue to increase. Controlled markets means a controlled populace. Individual freedom also means individual personal economic freedom. Wellness programs are just a ridculous and futile effort to stave off the onerous results of government market manipulation.

  2. Our company is discussing blood tests, waist measurements and participation in the wellness program in the company conference room. This raises serious concerns for me about the privacy of my medical information. I do not want to discuss my chronic pain, medications or mental health care with the company’s human resources. And, I certainly do not want to have an open conversation with my coworkers! I go to my doctor, eat sensible, run, belong to a gym, etc. But, as I age and my body breaks down, it’s not HR’s business. Also, I shouldn’t have to explain the disabilities act to HR or our insurance provider.


  3. Hi-

    I think that these programs are great, especially with the incentives. But what about programs that financially penalize those employees who choose not to participate? It is October 2012 and my employer will charge me 8% more in insurance premiums if I don’t sign up. I don’t feel this is fair. Is this “stick” approach becoming more common?