Courts may ultimately decide debate over mandatory wellness programs

Employee wellness programs started off being voluntary with participants perhaps saving a few hundred dollars for agreeing to tests that measure health indicators such as blood pressure, body-mass and cholesterol.

But now wellness programs are becoming more mandatory than they are voluntary, and some companies have gone a step further to deny health benefits completely for those who do not participate, according to a Bloomberg Business report.

The courts will likely decide how far companies can go to make participation in wellness programs mandatory, the report said, but so far several federal courts have ruled in favor of the employers.

In the latest case, a federal judge in Madison, Wisconsin, ruled in late December that employers can deny healthcare coverage to employees who don't participate in a wellness program without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as long as the data from such programs is used for purposes of overall health coverage. The case was filed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after Flambeau Inc., a Wisconsin plastics maker, denied an employee's insurance coverage after he chose not to participate in the wellness program and take a work-sponsored health assessment and biometric screening.

The government agency argued that Flambeau's wellness program didn't comply with the ADA, which limits companies from requiring medical exams or personal health information from its employees. The EEOC says it is reviewing the judge's decision, Bloomberg Business reported.

In any case, more legal activity is expected, as the EEOC has two other lawsuits pending that challenge employer programs, the article added.

The EEOC lost a similar lawsuit in 2014 against New Jersey-based Honeywell over its wellness program, which requires employees and their spouses take biometric and medical tests or face financial penalties, FierceHealthPayer has reported. 

In response to the legal confusion, the EEOC issued proposed rules last year to econcile guidelines under the Affordable Care Act and the ADA. Under the new guidelines, set to take effect next month, an employer can only penalize non-participating workers up to 30 percent of the total cost of employee-only coverage.

While the legal uncertainties are decided by the courts, American companies continue to expand wellness programs. However, the effectiveness of wellness programs is also under debate. One recent study, for example, found that financial incentives were not effective at encouraging weight loss.

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