By Lisa Zamosky
If you get your health insurance at work, there’s a good chance you’ve been feeling pressure from your employer to take better care of yourself.
As health care costs eat up a greater portion of employers’ costs, companies search for ways to help employees change behaviors that lead to health risks mainly due to obesity and smoking.
A firestorm was set off over a story out last week about pharmacy giant, CVS requiring its employees to take a health screening that captures body weight, blood pressure and other health measures or pay a $600 annual penalty.
As I’ve discussed before, wellness programs that tie financial incentives to not only participation, but to proof that employees are meeting their health-related goals is a growing trend. In fact, a survey just out by consulting firm AON Hewitt found that 83% of firms offer some kind of incentive to encourage participation in their wellness programs.
But the CVS program seems to take things a step further by punishing employees who don’t participate with a financial penalty.
Naturally, privacy is a main concern for many people, as it is for the employers collecting this information, experts say. But does it represent a breach of law?
Not according to John P. Hancock, employment attorney with the law firm, Butzel Long. Hancock says the only way to argue a legal case is by looking for violations of the Americans with Disability Act. And these programs do not discriminate against people with handicaps.
“Employers want people to focus on losing weight and not smoking and not drinking too much. None of these are protected classifications,” Hancock says. “It’s not a legal issue, it’s a nuisance,” he says of pushy employer-based wellness programs.
Where’s the Proof?
According to Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., chief behavioral scientist for Chip Rewards Inc., a Birmingham, Alabama-based health engagement technology company, many employers are implementing wellness programs that lack the scientific evidence to support what they’re doing.
Let’s say your employer is offering an incentive for you to make just one health-related change – say, getting you to give up cigarettes. There is good scientific information available to guide the employer in building a program from which you stand to benefit.
But these days employers want people to complete a list of behaviors (preventive screens, vaccinations, prescription refills) as opposed to focusing on just one. Klapow says the science isn’t quite there to determine how best to get people to make changes in multiple areas over the same period of time.
Why does this matter?
If, as in the case with CVS employees, you’re being asked to change a number of health behaviors over time – lose weight, stop smoking, increase your level of exercise – it’s not clear that these programs are going to work.
“Unfortunately most employers desire employees to engage in a much longer list of behaviors. There aren’t large scale data on what type of incentive structure is most effective for engaging people in a more complex variety of health behaviors over time. The research is needed and employers should be utilizing principles of behavioral science to help guide their decisions in engagement program design,” Klapow says.
What’s in it for You?
So, what should you, the employee consider when faced with the choice of whether to participate in your employer’s wellness programs? Klapow suggests asking yourself three questions:
1. Do I fully understand the programs and incentives I’m being asked to participate in, i.e. blood tests, an annual physical, a weight loss or exercise program?
2. Are the programs and services good for me and my health?
3. What’s in it for me to participate in the program? What do I risk if I don’t?
He adds: “You have every right to ask your employer ‘what’s the game plan here?’ Why am I being asked to do this and how does it benefit my health?” Klapow says.
What’s your take? If your employer provides health insurance, does it have the right to reward or penalize you to take better care of your own health?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.