People With Disabilities Who Opt Out of ‘Voluntary’ Wellness Programs Will Pay the Price, and the EEOC’s Okay With That.

Voluntary wellness programs at work can provide benefits to employees, but employers are increasingly adopting “voluntary” wellness programs that unfairly burden workers with disabilities the most of all. Worse, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems to think that’s okay, undermining core antidiscrimination protections it used to defend.

Here’s why.

Imagine a woman living with rheumatoid arthritis and severe depression who, under doctor’s care, has finally returned to work. Her medications — a corticosteroid and an antidepressant — have triggered weight gain. Now imagine this woman facing her employer’s “wellness activities:” She is instructed to fill out a detailed questionnaire about her medical conditions; she is weighed and pronounced overweight; she is told to lose weight. Oh, and the program is voluntary — but if she doesn’t comply, she will have to pay hundreds of dollars more in annual health care premiums. 

This imaginary example is all too real: Persons with disabilities risk discrimination and stigma if their employers gain access to their private medical information. And disabled workers are far more likely to have a condition targeted by wellness programs, such as high blood pressure, high blood glucose, or being overweight. 

Historically, the Americans with Disabilities Act has provided employees with disabilities some protections against overly intrusive and punitive wellness programs. The EEOC has maintained, sensibly, that voluntary medical examinations and inquiries cannot impose penalties on employees who decline to participate. 

Until now.

The EEOC has recently proposed new regulations and guidance language on wellness programs that would allow employers to implement wellness programs that add up to 30 percent of the cost of the employee’s health insurance to an employee’s health care bill. Based on the average annual premium, this translates to an extra cost for disabled employees of about $1,800 per year, either because they don’t want to answer questions that could expose their disability to their employer or because they cannot meet the health goal.

The EEOC describes these programs as “voluntary,” but workers with disabilities are the least likely to be able to afford additional health care premiums. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median household income for people with disabilities is less than half of household income for people without disabilities: $25,974 compared to $61,103. At the same time, there is little evidence that these programs are effective. 

If the EEOC is going to allow employers to charge workers hundreds more each year, it needs to be sure important privacy and disability protections are in place.

Three safeguards matter the most. First, the EEOC needs to provide guidance language that workers with disabilities have the right to request a reasonable accommodation waiver from a wellness program, so that their medical status can be taken into account in their ability to comply. The guidelines should also protect disabled workers’ privacy, so that their decision to join or not join the wellness program doesn’t broadcast the details of — or even the existence of — their medical condition to their employer. Finally, disabled workers should rest assured that the guidelines protect them from disability-based discrimination in the workplace, such as harassment of employees who cannot comply with “normal” health standards. 

Comments on the proposed regulations are due this Friday, June 19, 2015. Tell the EEOC not to permit employers to subject their disabled workers to a Hobson’s choice: Submit to the prescribed wellness activities, or pay hundreds more each year. The EEOC should instead insure that workers with disabilities can opt out of these programs without penalty. 

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IRENE PALNICK

GREAT ARTICLE- I AGREE. EMPLOYERS DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TOEMPLOYEES HEALTH CONCERNS

PJB

I'm a person with disabilities. My disabilities however aren't physical, they're mental and emotional. So unless I'm having a Panic Attack, for example, you wouldn't know that I'm disabled. When I disclose, which I have begun to do since I believe that I can't get protection under the ADA unless I disclose, I always feel like employers don't believe me, and on top of that I get embarrassed saying that my disability is mental because then I'm worried that they'll think that I can't do the job. On top of that, employers often give me resistance and know nothing about the ADA or Disabled Workers to begin with. So they're assuming that if I were to call off, for example, because I'm having a Panic Attack, they think I'm making it up, just like someone who isn't disabled. I really don't feel comfortable educating my employer on things that they should know to begin with. I am, however, very fortunate to live in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because they have 2 very good programs in place to help people with disabilities stay in the workforce. MAWD and OVR. MAWD stands for Medical Assistance for Workers with Disabilities. Unlike other MA programs, I can work full time, and even with overtime, on this program, actually if you're not working, you're not eligible even if you're on Unemployment. But I pay an Income-based Monthly Premium and it offers the best benefits of all PA MA programs, actually it's a completely comprehensive major medical plan. Personally, I think it would be a great model for a national single payor system. OVR standards for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. The counselors there are our direct advocates with employers. Also, OVR offers classes on improving your ability to get and keep a job. But one last point, in this country, there are a lot of "voluntary" choices we as workers (not just the disabled) Have the option to make. But they never amount to actually viable choices and always benefit the employer over the worker, and the organization who is supposed to enforce the Federal Labor Laws do nothing, and employers get away with breaking the law, and not even quietly. Or the law is written to show that it applies equally to workers as it does to employers, but in practice it only benefits the employer and puts the worker at a great disadvantage.

Anonymous

I have a disability because of being shot in the back three times, but they don't even wanna do shit about THAT. You know like make it HARDER for MANIACS and criminals to get a gun and end up costing the entire COUNTRY money - because that's what it does whether they agree it does or not. Then they turn around and get upset about even the TINIEST common-sense law? I get tired of their continual whining bleeps. You don't get to have EVERYthing both ways. Either you want to reduce the cost of gun violence or you don't. If you don't even want a Universal background check I got no time for you bc not having them will lead to millions of dollars being spent on continuing issues with gun violence. Even my brother, who's a hunter for 35 years now, believes in background checks. Even my friend who disagrees with banning semi-automatic weapons agrees with background checks for everyone. No exceptions and no loopholes.

Kurt Schanaman

My employer just notified me via memo that they are implementing an 'incentive-based' wellness program for 2017. They want me to fill out a huge questionnaire that asks questions which are none of their business. They want me to be poked (blood draw), prodded, manhandled (BMI measurements), get vaccines, get colonoscopy if doctor feels I am at higher risk (invasive)... and that I must participate to "receive the lowest premium rates in 2017". My solution is...

I notified my employer that I will not be coerced via financial sanctions to subject my body and my rights to this intrusion. As such, I will be dropping coverage through their benefits plan at open enrollment this upcoming fall, 2016. I have chosen to join a Christian health care sharing program, of which four exist and are grandfathered in as 'acceptable' by Obamacare.

I also notified the health insurance company of what I am doing, and why. They will be losing $7,000 worth of premiums off of me when I leave.

I don't know what other American citizens are doing about this for themselves, but as for me, I am now in a state of absolute and open revolt.

Until government stops letting corporations and the medical establishment treat people like lab rats, coercing them into accepting risks they don't want to take, I will continue to revolt as stated above, rallying others to join me to 'make it hurt' for the offenders.

kitty

As always the way the choices are explained are confusing and not accurate. If an employee is unable to participate in the workplace's wellness program then a simple letter from her physician is all that should be required. If this can't be provided then it needs to be looked into further before a penalty should be applied. Everyone here needs to be accountable.
Thank you for allowing me my opinion .

Anonymous

It wasn't true with me. That's why I went back to Emergency Medicine and never worked with In-hospital patients again. My doctor sent a note and they still greatly disliked it. It was a toxic work environment but I've never had one of those in Pre-hospital care. Not with EVERYone in the workplace disliking me. Only one, and the captain caught him red-handed after a year of the guy doing it to me. Then it stopped. I guess I'm lucky to have a captain who doesn't MIND if women decided to work in EMS; he called guys who couldn't do it people who "can't handle that a change in the protocol occurred."
The guy in question thought all women were working in EMS just to prove something, not because they felt it was a genuine calling.
I watched my sister dying of an emergency in front of my face. It's a calling. I don't think anyone becomes a paramedic to "prove something." Or if they do it's sure as hell not why they STAY a paramedic.

Anonymous

A greedy person is never satisfied and his income will never be enough.
And apparently will annoy the general populace for a lifespan thinking up all this crap to serve only their own needs.
I hope they really do boil in oil in the Afterlife. That's what Catholics think is the punishment for a life lived in constant greed. You'll boil for eternity in the finest oil money can buy.

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