As part of the Obama Administration’s push to cut healthcare costs, employers probably will gain more power to reward employees who follow a healthy lifestyle — and punish those who won’t.
Previous efforts to push wellness in the workplace were met by objections — and occasional lawsuits — from employees and advocacy groups who said “wellness” was just another term for “invasion of privacy” and an attempt to control employees’ lives outside the workplace.
Rumblings out of Washington indicate, however, that the White House — with help from a friendly Congress — would like to change some of the rules on wellness mandates if the changes will lower healthcare costs.
What’s coming — what’s changing
The Administration has sent several proposals to Capitol Hill and asked members of Congress to consider the ideas, such as giving employers tax credits for:
- programs that offer periodic screenings for health problems
- counseling to help employees adopt healthier lifestyles
- smoking-cessation programs
- treatment of obesity
- physical fitness
- treatment of depression
To allow employers to fully implement such programs, without penalty or fear of lawsuits, the Administration would have to overcome some legal obstacles. For instance:
- A 1996 law prevents group health plans from discriminating against people because of their health status or medical history. Charging those people higher premiums or denying them the rewards that healthy people might get could be considered “discriminatory.” That’ll have to be changed.
- If an employer offers financial incentives to employees for lowering cholesterol, losing weight or stopping smoking, the amount of such rewards generally may not exceed 20% of the cost of health coverage. Under current laws and tax codes, employers who want to offer greater rewards can’t do so. The Administration and Congress are looking at loosening those rules and letting employers decide the limits of the rewards.