New rules for company ‘wellness’ programs

Corporate wellness programs – designed to help workers quit smoking, manage stress, lose weight and address other health issues – are becoming popular with employers. Many businesses see them as a valuable perk as well as a way to reduce absenteeism and health care costs.

However, under federal law, these programs must be voluntary – employees can’t be forced to participate in them. Further, there are limits on how companies can obtain and use medical and genetic information about workers and their families.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued new rules that clarify what’s allowed.

While a company can give incentives to employees to encourage them to participate, the EEOC says the value of these incentives can’t exceed 30 percent of the cost of employee-only health care coverage. The same limit applies to incentives to encourage a spouse to participate. And a program cannot penalize workers for failing to achieve a particular result.

A wellness program must be designed to promote health or prevent disease. That means a program can’t include a health screening unless it also provides the employee with results, follow-up information or health advice.

Businesses can receive employee medical information through the program, but only in aggregate form that doesn’t disclose the identity of any particular worker.

Finally, companies cannot give employees an incentive to provide current or past health information about their children, or to provide genetic information about themselves or their family.