It’s time for the government to stop preventing smokers from quitting
© Getty Images

Healthy workers make businesses more profitable. This seemingly self-evident fact has formed the basis for the rapidly growing movement of employer-sponsored wellness programs for workers across the country.

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 72 percent of employers in the United States offered some level of wellness resources to their employees in 2016, up from only 54 percent in 1996 — further, research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor found that these voluntary programs “improve employee health meaningfully,” and that “employers are committed to the long-term support” of these programs, despite “significant reductions in health care costs [taking] time to materialize.” 

ADVERTISEMENT
Employer sponsored wellness programs can take several different forms, but generally, any program offered to workers with the goal of increasing personal wellness would qualify.

 

This can mean offering bonuses to workers who quit smoking or lose weight, giving paid time off for participation in physical activities, providing healthy meal alternatives at a reduced cost, providing free flu shots or other common medication, or even reducing the out-of-pocket cost of health insurance for employees who volunteer for regular health screenings.

The outcomes of these programs, obviously, can vary, but research from Harvard University found in 2010 each dollar spent on wellness programs is correlated to a six dollar drop in medical expenses and absences to the employer. Regardless of the dollar amount saved, workers report higher job satisfaction and lower rates of absenteeism when these programs are in place and recent research has found that employer-sponsored screenings can improve the management of chronic diseases for workers.

For decades, American workers have taken a larger and larger share of their compensation in the form of fringe benefits like employer-sponsored wellness programs – with all benefits nearly doubling from 13 percent in 1973 to 20 percent of compensation in 2012. Some of this could be attributed to the extremely high preference Americans have for flexibility in the workplace — an employer-sponsored wellness program can end the choice between punching the clock and getting in better shape by rewarding employees who choose to live healthier.

Employers like offering these types of work-life flexible benefits because it can help them attract, develop, and retain the most talented employees.

The good news is that many Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress publicly support removing legal barriers to improving worker health using this tool.

Unfortunately, despite widespread public support and a great deal of academic evidence supporting the expansion of wellness programs, under President Obama, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a rule in May of last year that severely limited the ability of companies to use incentives to help employees lead healthier lives.

The EEOC regulation was ostensibly designed to address concerns about the protection of private medical information given to employers by workers as part of a wellness program and the potential for discrimination against some workers who may be unable to participate in certain employer-sponsored plans.

However, the Obama Administration cast far too wide a net in attempting to resolve these possible issues by reducing the allowable incentives for wellness programs, despite Congressionally enacted statute explicitly stating otherwise.

Benefits professionals have criticized these restrictions as unworkable and in direct conflict with existing law, saying the Obama rules will “serve as roadblocks to employers trying to improve the overall wellness of their employees and keep their health care costs in check.”

Democrat leadership of the House Education & Workforce Committee also expressed misgivings that the Obama Administration’s rule would “fall short” of protecting fair wellness programs. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Trump administration pays June ObamaCare subsidies to insurers Republicans and the lost promise of local control in education MORE (R-Tenn.) was less judicious in his analysis of the rule, saying “Congress was clear in its support of workplace wellness programs…and the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury were clear in their regulations implementing the law. It seems the EEOC is the only one missing the mark.”

In short, Obama’s EEOC overreached and has subjected employers who choose to offer wellness programs to potentially costly legal battles that, in many cases can simply make the total cost of providing these plans too high.

This may help explain why employers across the country started rolling back some of the programs they had offered in the past.

The federal government should not be in the business of preventing Americans from making healthy choices. If employer-sponsored wellness programs make those choices easier, lawmakers and regulators should not hold all such plans hostage for fear some may be poorly run.

President Trump and Congress should work together to eliminate bureaucratic barriers to healthcare and worker choice like this regulatory remnant of the Obama Administration.

Getting government out of the way will allow employers to compete for talented employees by offering a variety of health incentives, which provides American workers with more options for improving their health and more flexibility in the workplace.

Earlier this week, the House Committee on Education & Workforce approved legislation designed to remove the barriers created by these misguided Obama-era rules, and allow for the expansion of employer-sponsored wellness programs consistent with existing law.

It’s an effort that likely won’t grab headlines as it now moves before the full House, but it’s a commonsense push to end overreaching regulations, one that will trim red tape and reduce real-life burdens faced by entrepreneurs and workers.

Al Downs is a senior economic analyst at Americans for Prosperity.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.