A BILL making its way through the House would permit employers to offer bonuses to employees in the form of lower health-plan premiums in exchange for providing their genetic information as part of workplace wellness programs — or impose penalties on those who do not participate. In either case, employees could be coerced into sharing information they have every right to keep private.
The Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act passed committee on a party-line vote in March, with 22 Republicans in favor and 17 Democrats opposed. The act’s supporters say it is primarily designed to reconcile conflicting rules on how to calculate the maximum bonus a company can offer an employee for participating in a health-enhancing program. But the bill would also strip away standards laid out in the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act that prohibit employers from inducing employees to provide privileged medical information, and that keep that information private.
Under the House bill, workplace wellness plans could offer employees rewards in exchange for their genetic information — from whether their mothers had breast cancer to whether they possess the risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a change from the status quo, in which companies can encourage employees to disclose current health conditions but family medical history and other genetic indicators are off-limits unless their disclosure is unlinked to any sort of reward. Troublingly, in some cases the individual information collected could end up in the hands of an employer, when today the data is available only in aggregate.
Employers are entitled to want a healthy workforce and the lower health-care costs and higher productivity that may come with it. Current law allows companies to offer incentives for employees to participate in programs and hit fitness targets. But pushing an employee to lose weight or quit smoking is different from pushing him or her to share information that is at once intensely personal and professionally irrelevant. And by supplying employers with details that indicate whether employees may get sick in the future, the bill could open the door to job discrimination that a worker would bear the burden of proving in court.
According to advocates, the bill was never meant to threaten employees’ privacy, yet by painting their act in sloppy strokes, that is what its authors have done. They should change the language to ensure that identifiable employee genetic data does not make its way into a manager’s filing cabinet.