The fact that healthcare costs are rising is undisputed. If employers are to continue to provide healthcare coverage for their employees, they have several options: cut benefits, increase employees’ premiums, or drop coverage altogether. In an effort to avoid these less-appealing options, employers for many years now have utilized wellness programs to encourage improvements in employee health. These programs have encouraged individuals to take responsibility for their health and rewarded those for modifying unhealthy behavior. This in turn benefits the entire workforce and protecting colleagues and coworkers who otherwise would also be saddled with higher premiums to compensate for an unhealthy coworker’s poor health choices. The result – better health and lower costs which allows employers to use these savings to pay employees higher wages, invest in further adapting benefits to specific employee population needs, and create more jobs.
Beyond the more direct motives, both altruistic and financial, these workplace wellness programs also reflect the general evolution of our country’s healthcare system toward prevention and maintaining health as opposed to the historic pattern of treatment and healing the sick. In identifying impending and current chronic disease and illnesses, these programs offer another way to advance our country’s health care evolving approach beyond simply treating diseases and caring for the sick to improving health and maintaining wellness. These wellness programs give people tools to identify their risk factors, improve their health, modify unhealthy behavior and stay well both in the workplace and at home.
It is important to understand that these programs must follow a myriad of privacy and anti-discrimination laws to ensure that employee health information is protected and that individual employees are not discriminated against based on health status. Sensitive medical information and privacy concerns have been carefully protected for years – whether for an employee with a congenital heart defect obtaining healthcare coverage and medical services through an employer’s health plan or for a smoker completing a smoking cessation class as part of an employer’s wellness program. As with other sensitive personal medical information, data collected and monitored in conjunction with these programs is not shared with the employer. Third party entities (and not employers) are responsible for conducting screenings and any personal health information is de-identified and protected. Only information that is necessary to accomplish the purpose for which it is being shared can be communicated.
At the end of the day, both employees and employers benefit from better health. Employers want to continue to provide coverage, and in this difficult time of transition resulting from the healthcare law, wellness programs continue to offer an effective way for employers to encourage healthy behavior without having to decrease benefits, reduce wages, or close their doors altogether.
Johnson is the senior vice president of Labor, Immigration, and Employee Benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.