Wellness Battle: AARP vs. EEOC

A federal lawsuit was just filed against the government agency that handles the rules on workplace wellness programs, according to the New York Times, which calls the suit “the first major legal challenge of the regulations, and will add fuel to one of the hottest debates in healthcare.”

The main point of contention in the suit is whether some programs that require an employee to fill out a health risk assessment or undergo biometric testing for conditions such as high blood pressure are forcing workers to hand over private medical or genetic information.

The suit was filed by AARP, the consumer advocacy group that represents older Americans, in Federal District Court in Washington. In the suit, the group argues that the programs violate anti-discrimination laws aimed at protecting workers’ medical information. It also questions whether the programs are truly voluntary when the price of not participating can be high.

The suit takes aim at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for issuing the rules governing what employers can do. When the agency issued new rules on the programs in May, it said employers could set the incentive as high as 30 percent of the annual cost of a worker’s health insurance coverage.

The cost of individual coverage averages $6,435 a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which means refusing to participate could cost workers nearly $2,000.

Claiming that the commission reversed its longstanding position to protect employees’ privacy, the AARP described its members as facing “imminent harm flowing directly from the rules.” Older people would have to either incur significant financial penalties or divulge medical information that “once revealed, will never be confidential again.”

The AARP is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the new rules, which go into effect in 2017.

James Gelfand, senior vice president for health policy for the Erisa Industry Committee, a trade group representing employers on issues like health benefits, was critical of the AARP suit. Employers, which are never told which employees have certain conditions, are not using the information to discriminate, he said.

“There’s no evidence of these things happening,” he told the Times.

The EEOC so far has declined to comment on the new lawsuit.