Wellness programs at work used to involve paying for a gym membership or building one for employee use, offering Weight Watchers meetings onsite, the daily healthy meal in the cafeteria and offering health fairs with screenings and flu shots. Now, with so much money at stake in health care plan premiums and the obesity trend portending potential problems, more companies are using money – in the form of incentives and penalties – to encourage workers to get in shape. Federal regulators, though, are questioning programs in which an employer can heavily fine employees for not joining in a wellness effort.
Honeywell International is one of three companies reportedly now facing legal challenges from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for the surcharges they are trying to levy on workers who will not participate in their employee wellness programs. At issue is the hefty size of the fines.
Honeywell recently asked workers and their spouses to participate in health screenings the end of October. The screenings were reportedly to include cholesterol, blood pressure, body-mass index and other measures. Employees who did not participate could face up to $4,000 in surcharges and lost health plan premiums.
Wellness programs to encourage healthy habits are common in larger companies The Affordable Care Act encouraged companies to offer wellness programs to improve productivity, cut absenteeism and reduce medical costs. In fact, nearly 90 percent offer financial incentives or rewards of, on average, $521 to employees for participating in programs to get healthier, according to a recent survey. By contrast, only 57 percent did, with an average incentive of $260, in 2009.
Many companies besides Honeywell offer rewards for completing an assessment of personal health and risk factors. These can be as involved as Honeywell’s biometric screenings or as simple as filling out a questionnaire about family medical history, diet and fitness habits.
While some companies provide rewards for mere completion, others require employee to take action of risk areas identified in the assessment (or offer an additional reward for doing so). This may be participating in a weight-loss program or asthma control effort. For example, Johnson & Johnson offers employees $500 annually for taking the health profile then additional money for participating in wellness activities related to the results.
Honeywell has approximately 51,000 employees in the U.S. The company reported that 77 percent of the employees and spouses enrolled in one of their health plans participated last year in the corporation’s wellness program. Only 36 percent participated a few years ago, according to the company.
The corporation issued a statement about the EEOC action. They said the EEOC is “woefully out of step with the healthcare marketplace” and suggested they clearly did not know the details of the Honeywell wellness plan.
The company claims it wants employees to use the screening information to address health issues that could potential be life threatening. They also acknowledge in their statement, however, that Honeywell believes that the “employees who do work to lead healthier lifestyles (should not) subsidize the healthcare premiums for those who do not.” That is the crux of the issue that led to the EEOC lawsuit. At a time when the Affordable Care Act is eliminating discrimination based on health condition, can an employer heavily fine employees, or essentially charge more for their health care benefits, for not joining in their wellness effort? It remains to be seen.
By Dyanne Weiss