Are Employee Biometric Screenings Legal?

Posted by JD Thornton on Thu, Nov, 20, 2014

legalThere has been a lot of talk lately about employer sponsored wellness programs, especially following the EEOC’s lawsuit against Honeywell. There are a number of concerns circulating around the issue, so we wanted to present you with both sides of the story.

A Little Background

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a suit in October against large corporate employer Honeywell. The EEOC raised concerns in its suit regarding the wellness program and linked insurance incentives at Honeywell.

Door #1, EEOC

The lawsuit claims that Honeywell is penalizing employees who refuse biometric screening with costs that could get up to $4,000 per employee, per year. The EEOC claims the biometric screenings are illegal because they are being required by Honeywell, rather than being offered on a voluntary basis. The commission feels this violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). These acts are in place to protect employees with health conditions from discrimination and poor treatment from their employers, as well as from being coerced into medical testing and treatment.

Door #2, Honeywell

Honeywell has called the lawsuit frivolous, and feels that it is providing incentives to employees to make educated decisions about their health that could lead to lower health care costs, both for Honeywell and for the employee. The company publicly stated that "no Honeywell employee has ever been denied healthcare coverage or disciplined in any way as a result of their voluntary decision not to participate in our wellness programs."

To Screen or Not To Screen

Here at TotalWellness, we urge employers to offer biometric screenings to their employees as measures to protect both the employer’s financial interests and the employee’s health. For instance, if your employee has high blood pressure but is unaware of it, a biometric screening could be an alert to the situation, giving them the warning sign that they need to see a doctor. Subsequent lifestyle changes could then help lower the employee’s blood pressure, possibly preventing heart disease or other issues. A biometric screening does not diagnose a health problem, but it can certainly help raise awareness about an individual’s state of health so they can make healthier and more informed decisions. If a more serious illness is prevented, or if the employee becomes healthier, the employer can see a decrease in healthcare costs as well. We consider this a win-win situation for all involved.

Voluntary or Not?

The question and concern this story boils down to is, are the biometric screenings truly voluntary? Are Honeywell’s employees being offered an incentive in the form of a cost savings for their participation, or are they being penalized for not participating? These are actually two different scenarios. The bottom line is: if Bob doesn’t wish to participate in the screening, does his insurance cost him more or the same as it would if there was no wellness program? If Jane does participate, is she getting a discount or being offered what the premiums would have been, had there been no wellness program? Without more specific information on Honeywell’s program, we cannot answer this question fully. But we hope this is the question that those in judgment on the case will consider.

Your Wellness Program

As you consider your new wellness program or review your current one in the wake of the EEOC’s lawsuit against Honeywell, we recommend that you be very clear on a few things for your employees:

  1. The insurance based incentive (or any other incentive offered) is a discount for those who participate in the program, and does not represent any additional cost to those who refuse screening.

  2. HIPAA guidelines prevent employers from being privy to the specific details of their employee’s biometric screening results. While some of our clients opt to receive general result information (such as the percentage of employees with high blood pressure), they are not going to receive specific information about who has high blood pressure. This allows employers to streamline their wellness programs for their employee base, while protecting employees from discrimination based on their biometric screening results.

  3. The purpose of a wellness program is not simply to cut health care costs for the employer, but to guide the employee to better health and lifestyle decisions. A wellness program works best when it is offered with both financial and health-driven goals in mind; as a benefit to both employee and employer, not merely a tool to cut insurance premiums. As we like to say here at TotalWellness, use more carrots then sticks. 

So how does your wellness program measure up? Are there changes you plan on making, or do you have any suggestions for employers who want to make sure they stay in the black with the EEOC?

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit

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Topics: Biometric Health Screenings, Wellness at Work


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