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Are worker wellness programs discriminatory?
Unhealthy people are expensive to insure, so companies are incentivizing — and penalizing — workers based on how well they care for themselves
Some 90 percent of companies now reward workers for participating in health wellness programs.
Some 90 percent of companies now reward workers for participating in health wellness programs. Thinkstock
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hat is a worker wellness program?
"Worker wellness" is an umbrella term for any program within which companies incentivize workers to improve their health — be it by giving up smoking, losing weight, or lowering their blood pressure, for example. It could also include anything from reimbursing employees for gym membership fees to measuring their health stats and either rewarding them for meeting certain standards, or charging them more for insurance if they don't.

How prevalent are they?
According to The Wall Street Journal, 90 percent of companies now reward workers for participating in some type of wellness program — up from 57 percent in 2009.

Does that mean they're actually popular?
Not with everyone. Some worry the programs penalize people for problems that are not entirely in their control — which is essentially discriminating against sick people. California state Sen. Bill Monning (D), for one, warns against programs that base incentives on a worker's ability to lose weight. In the Mercury News, he recently wrote:

These types of programs fail to recognize employees' different health histories and life circumstances. Many people struggle throughout their lives to lose weight, for example. They can be hampered by genetics, diseases, socio-economic circumstances or even by certain prescription drugs. These employees would be financially penalized for failure to attain the identified health outcomes even though they might have dutifully participated in an employer-sponsored health regimen. [Mercury News]

Monning thinks that "left unchecked, these 'Shape Up or Pay Up' wellness programs can create huge inequities in the health insurance system and the workplace."

So why are so many companies implementing the programs?
Partly because ObamaCare encourages employers to push workers toward healthier behavior, says Bloomberg Businessweek. For example, the health care overhaul allows companies to charge workers 30 percent more on health insurance if they don't meet certain markers of healthfulness. Before the law was implemented they could only charge 20 percent more.

Ultimately, though, companies use these programs to save money. Various studies show that the health of the American worker is abysmal: "One in three suffers from some symptoms of depression, one in four smokes, one in five experiences difficulty sleeping, one in five is treated for high blood pressure, one in seven has high levels of cholesterol, and nearly half have not exercised in more than a month," says the Institute for Healthcare Consumerism. Not only are unhealthy workers less productive, they also cost their companies much more in insurance rates.

Do the wellness incentives work?
The verdict is still out.

Mike Miesen at The Health Care Blog says that while some stats show that employees are getting healthier, companies aren't yet seeing the savings from wellness programs. One recent study "found a 12 percent reduction in hospitalizations and a $22.20 per member per month decrease in inpatient health claims cost — but also a $19 per member per month increase in non-inpatient claims costs (which doesn't include the wellness program costs, which were substantial)," he writes.

But because wellness programs focus on preventative measures, it's tough to measure their success right away. "It's an investment, and it's an investment that does take some time," Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group representing HR professionals, told Bloomberg Businessweek. "Helping employees quit cigarettes or lose weight will translate to lower medical costs over three to five years," he says.

Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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