Good Wellness Starts with Hard Facts

When kicking off a wellness program, employers often rely on big events — health fairs, walk-a-thons and gym membership promotions, to name a few.

To ensure long-term success, however, employers also need to sweat the details of their plan. That means gathering lots of data with a health risk assessment, experts say.

Research shows that health risk assessments are crucial to wellness programs because they can gather a wealth of accurate and unique information about the participants, according to a recent report on the Society for Human Resource Management’s website. This information allows employers to specifically tailor programs that are best suited for individual workers and turns an assessment into a “teachable moment that is highly conducive to engaging individuals in health improvement programs,” the SHRM report’s authors noted.

While a volume of research demonstrates the value of assessments, recent regulations from a number of federal laws have dampened the excitement for these wellness tools. Specifically, the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers from gathering genetic data, including family medical history, via health risk assessments unless the information is given voluntarily. Employers can offer incentives to encourage employees to take an assessment, but only if the assessment does not require data on family medical history or other genetic information. Also, employers must make it clear the incentive is not tied to answering those questions, according to the law firm of McGuire Woods LLP.

Luckily for employers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently clarified some rules on GINA and assessments, giving employers a little more wiggle room. In a recent news release posted on HR Morning, the EEOC said employers “may use the genetic information voluntarily provided by an individual to guide that individual into an appropriate disease management program.” This guidance allows employers to use assessment data to steer individuals into specific types of wellness initiatives. Employers should note, however, that participation in these assessments must remain voluntary, according to the HR Morning report.

HIPAA and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) also can muddy assessment compliance, according to the law firm of Verrill Dana LLP. Both laws contain provisions that prohibit nondiscrimination, which could emerge if genetic data from assessments were mishandled. Each law, however, also offers safe harbors for “bona fide” wellness programs (initiatives that are available to all similarly situated employees) and do not impact plans that offer incentives based on participation, not results.

Verrill Dana noted in a recent publication that under HIPAA and ADAAA, employers can require employees to take an assessment as part of a wellness program, and they can provide premium discounts or other incentives if they participate. However, they can’t make the assessment a condition of employment, and any incentive must be offered to all similarly situated participants (thus keeping the plan “bona fide”), the law firm states.

Assessments certainly require careful handling, but if done right, they can serve as a cornerstone to an effective wellness program, the SHRM report noted.

“Health assessments . . . have been proven effective in reducing health care cost trends and improving population health and productivity,” the report’s authors wrote. “It is important to recognize, however, that the role of the health assessment is not to change health outcomes but to make it possible to target and tailor proactive outreach and behavior change programs.”

by UBA

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