A bill, known as the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act, has been introduced to Congress that would make it more difficult for employees to prevent employers from accessing their private medical information, including genetic data. Additionally, the bill would increase penalties for people who wish to opt out of workplace wellness programs, through which employers are able to get workers’ medical information. This would also extend out to the workers’ families, affecting the children as well.
The bill was put forward by Representative Virginia Foxx (R.-NC-5), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce where the bill is being reviewed. Democrats, along with consumer, privacy and healthcare advocates, are up in arms about the measure which they claim overrides laws in place to protect workers from employers who try to access medical information.
The Arguments on Either Side
In a letter to Congress, organizations such as AARP, the Epilepsy Foundation, and the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote “We strongly oppose any legislation that would allow employers to inquire about employees’ private genetic information or medical information unrelated to their ability to do their jobs, and to impose draconian penalties on employees who choose to keep that information private.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency devoted to preventing discrimination in the workplace, has taken legal action in the past against companies who have allegedly gone too far with workplace wellness programs. These programs can be used (illegally) to fire someone because he or she has an illness. To the EEOC’s dismay, courts generally side with the employer in such cases. The EEOC would have an even harder time regulating companies under the proposed bill, which would weaken laws such as Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
But according to Bethany Aronhalt, a spokeswoman for the House committee, “This legislation will reaffirm existing law and provide regulatory clarity so that employers can have the certainty they need to help lower health care costs for their employees.” However, Jennifer Mathis, the director of policy and legal advocacy of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, argued that “it just takes away the workplace protection” by allowing employee wellness programs to cancel out existing workplace protections.
Companies defend wellness programs, saying they add to the overall health of employees and reduce healthcare costs, even though there is little evidence to support this, according to the New York Times. Opponents of these programs say that they essentially force people into handing over information such as blood pressure, weight and anything else that might indicate risk of cancer. Additionally, under the Affordable Care Act, companies can incentivize workers to share medical information by offering a 30 percent decrease in insurance payments. This monetary incentive would increase under the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act.
Bill Emerges Amidst a Republican Effort to Dismantle Healthcare and Privacy
This comes at a time when a GOP-led Congress and a Republican Executive Branch are attempting to roll back Obamacare and shred internet privacy protections. They aren’t holding any punches. Take for instance the Republicans’ plan to cut money going into healthcare. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the plan would siphon off more than $1 trillion to help fund an $883 billion tax cut for the wealthy. What’s worse is that under this proposed plan, by 2018, 14 million people would no longer have health insurance.
The Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act fits right into the larger picture, but Democrats and healthcare advocates will surely want to put up a fight to make sure measures such as these never see the light of day.