Lawmakers: Wellness programs foster discrimination

With employee wellness linked to increased engagement and cost savings, more hospitals are committed to keeping their workers healthy.

But wellness programs, although well-intentioned, may undermine the Affordable Care Act's efforts to expand access to healthcare, The Hill's Healthwatch reported.

The real issue is with health-contingent wellness programs, which tie incentives to certain health outcomes, such as blood pressure, cholesterol or weight, leading House Democrats wrote Friday in a letter to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

They noted that these programs could encourage discrimination based on health status, especially for certain ethnicities that have a genetic predisposition for certain diseases screened through cholesterol or blood sugar levels.

Even though discrimination is no longer allowed in the individual and small group insurance market, it could occur in the employer market, thanks to health-contingent wellness programs.

"Practices that are illegal in the insurance market generally should not be legal for employers," they wrote. 


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However, the Democratic lawmakers support participatory wellness programs that reward employees for partaking in healthy activities or programs. For example, hospitals offer tobacco cessation programs and fitness and gym discounts, among other efforts to promote healthy behavior among employees.

Whether health-contingent or participatory, hospitals want their employees to set an example for patients. Hospital employee wellness could take on increasing importance with research indicating healthcare workers may be unhealthier than professionals in other sectors.

"As a hospital and a healthcare organization, we are held to a higher standard," Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis (Tenn.) CEO Derick Ziegler told The Commercial Appeal. "We need to walk the talk--not just focus on patient wellness, but be able to say we also focus on employee wellness."

For more:
- here's the letter (.pdf)
- read the Hill's Healthwatch article
- read the Commercial Appeal article