Murray: EEOC regs on wellness programs coming soon

The top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said Thursday that federal guidance is forthcoming to help employers administer worker wellness programs so that they comply with both ObamaCare and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurrayOvernight Energy: Officials close in on new global emissions deal NBA pulls All-Star Game from NC over bathroom law 40 senators seek higher biodiesel mandate MORE (D-Wash.) raised concerns in a committee hearing that some employers are going too far with their wellness initiatives and are ultimately discriminating against certain workers based on their health status.

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Representatives from industry countered that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) should clarify what constitutes a "voluntary" wellness program and not simply resort to litigation against companies it sees as discriminatory.

"I think it's really important that EEOC get the rules out and make sure all people are protected," Murray said. "I am assured they will be out very shortly."

The hearing gave lawmakers an opportunity to debate the pros and cons of employer wellness programs, an increasingly popular initiative for companies that want to control healthcare costs.

The programs aim to improve employee health in a variety of ways — sometimes with financial incentives for lowering blood pressure or losing weight, for example, and sometimes with penalties for smoking and other unhealthy behaviors.

The Affordable Care Act encouraged companies to introduce wellness programs that reward workers for good health. But some firms have run into trouble with programs that rely on detailed health screenings and questionnaires that critics say violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under that law, employers can ask health questions of their workers as part of a wellness program, provided the program is "voluntary." Stakeholders on both sides of the debate have called on the EEOC to define that term.

Murray, after suggesting the guidance is on its way, said employers should move quickly to weigh in.

"We need the businesses to take a look at them and get comments back so we can get the rules issued," she said.