Friday, May 31, 2013

Privacy Bends for the Sake of Health Care Costs

As the federal budget takes on more financial responsibility for people’s state of health, you expect policies to change accordingly, and here is a good example. New regulations on employer wellness programs give employers more leeway to penalize employees who don’t participate in a wellness program or who don’t meet goals. It is the penalty for not participating that will shock people the most, especially when you look at what these wellness programs are. The standards for relevance are set lower than ever. A “wellness program” does not have to actually improve anyone’s health; it just has to sound like it might. Some real-life employer wellness programs consist of little more than “self-assessment,” which may just mean that employees are obliged to answer a questionnaire about their health history, habits, and lifestyle. The answers may be indirectly collected by the employer and its insurance company. And now, “non-participants” may be obliged to pay as much as 50 percent more as their share of health coverage costs.

In past years, this might have been seen as a worrisome erosion of worker privacy, but this year, the federal government is willing to take that chance in the hope that some of the wellness programs will work and health care costs will be lower. That’s what it means to be on the hook.