Are workplace wellness programs in legal jeopardy?

While platforms such as electronic medical records software and medical billing software have enabled healthcare providers to streamline workloads and provide more effective care, other digital tools including wearable devices and smartphone apps have empowered patients to take charge of their personal wellbeing. Indeed, apps and wearables, such as pedometers and heart rate monitors, are now widely by individuals on a quest to improve and keep track of their fitness levels.

Wellness programs in the workplace will often incorporate the use of such devices. These initiatives are introduced by employers with the goal of keeping professionals as healthy and active as possible. It makes financial sense - if employees are healthier, they're more likely to be productive and miss fewer days off work. Insurance costs can also be kept lower when a workforce has a better overall level of health. 

Last year the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission completed federal mandates pertaining to workplace wellness programs, with which all organizations must comply. The AARP subsequently sued the government body in court, challenging the fairness of the new wellness program stipulations, FierceHealthIT reported. Read on to learn more:

A closer look at workplace wellness programs
As detailed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, workplace wellness programs can take a number of formats, but the objective is invariably the same - to help keep working professionals as healthy as possible. Examples of different types of wellness programs, as detailed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include regular medical screenings, for chronic conditions such as cancer and hypertension, fitness programs, exercise challenges and competitions, gym programs, diet and nutrition education initiatives and more. 

The programs are often incentive-based and may be tied to insurance programs - for example, it is common for employers or insurance companies to offer cheaper premiums in exchange for participation in a wellness program. In some cases an employer may offer payment in the form of a prize or bonus for employees who actively engage in these plans. An example of a common workplace wellness program is a pedometer challenge, in which staff members are tasked with hitting a certain amount of steps each month in exchange for a monetary bonus.

Wellness program rules challenged in court
According to a report from FierceHealthIT, the EEOC confirmed workplace wellness program rules in May 2016. The notable take away from these provisions was the fact that employers can offer anywhere up to 30 percent off self coverage costs for staff members in exchange for wellness program participation. Forced involvement in wellness initiatives, however, is outlawed under the EEOC rules. The mandates were developed to complement stipulations put forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

The EEOC rules were soon met with condemnation, however, by a range of interest groups, including the American Association of Retired Persons - a nonprofit concerned with the interests of older Americans over the age of 50 - who later filed a lawsuit against the EEOC. The AARP have claimed that the 30 percent off rule puts workers in an unfair situation - either participate in wellness programs in which they potentially have to surrender confidential information - pertaining to genetics or chronic disease - or pay unfairly high insurance premiums.

The EEOC responded by filing a motion to have the case dismissed. This was later denied by presiding judge John Bates, who argued that the EEOC were unable to provide concrete evidence for why the new wellness programs rules are fair and effective. 

"Neither the final rules nor the administrative record contain any concrete data, studies or analysis that would support any particular incentive level as the threshold past which an incentive becomes involuntary in violation of the ADA and GINA," he wrote, according to FierceHealth IT.

Despite the ruling, judge Bates declined to dismantle the EEOC rules, citing that such a move could place a burden on the organizations that already have comprehensive incentive-based wellness programs in place. He instead asked that the EEOC return to the drawing board and consider the development of new, fairer rules. 

Still, given that the rules have yet to be repealed, nothing has technically changed, vice president of public policy at the National Business Group on Health, Steve Wojcik, told FierceHealthIT. 

 "[The new ruling is] unlikely to be the end of the story," he stressed. "For now, nothing changes for employer wellness initiatives."

The AARP were happy with the ruling, however, with president Lisa Marsh Ryerson calling the decision a "victory."

Considering the benefits of workplace wellness programs
Despite the pending legal action regarding guidelines, it is important to consider that workplace wellness programs, as a practice can be highly beneficial to both employers and employees alike. Here a quick look at some of the key benefits:

1. Greater productivity
As explained by online legal resource NOLO, healthier workers tend to be more productive in their jobs. After all, they tend to have more energy and will be more present and engaged. Indeed, the source mentioned a study, conducted by researchers based in Australia, which found that there is up to 3.1 times more productivity among workers who take care of their health. So when employee wellness programs are introduced, it is beneficial not only for the health of a team, but the bottom line of the company as well. 

2. Less absenteeism
Healthier employees, who exercise often and eat a balanced a nutritious diet, will be less likely to take routine sick days, the Houston Chronicle noted. This is for the simple reason that more active individuals are less prone to sickness, from the common cold to chronic conditions such as obesity and heart disease. NOLO cited a study which found that individuals who engage in regular high intensity exercise miss far fewer workdays due to sickness - around 32 percent fewer, to be precise. The less absenteeism there is, the more productive a team can be, which again benefits the bottom line. 

3. Employer brand loyalty
Many employees, especially health-conscious millennials, enjoy workplace wellness programs, to the point where such initiatives can help retain workers and create employer brand loyalty, an article from careers website Monster explained. Higher retention rates and less turnover is again highly beneficial for any organization, financially speaking, and it also speaks volumes for their reputation.

4. Cheaper health insurance
NOLO noted that another benefit is the potential reduction in healthcare costs for employers, which in some cases can be notable. That's not to mention that the incentives provided to employees can again encourage company loyalty. 

Kevin McCarthy's picture

Kevin McCarthy

Industry News Editor

An avid traveler and news junkie, Kevin covers a range of topics from healthcare technology to policy and regulations. As a former journalism student, he enjoys finding stories relevant to small practices and is passionate about keeping them informed. Before joining NueMD, Kevin worked for Turner Broadcasting as a Programming Intern where he conducted legal research and contributed to editorial content development. He received his bachelor's degree in Communication from Kennesaw State University and currently serves as the Industry News Editor at NueMD.

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