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EEOC Wellness Regulations Survive AARP Challenge
By: Jason Lacey

A federal court in Washington, D.C. has declined to issue an order that would have halted implementation of the EEOC’s wellness plan regulations under the ADA and GINA. The regulations had been challenged by AARP on the grounds that they failed to adequately protect workers’ rights. However, the court concluded there was no risk of "irreparable harm" to workers in allowing the regulations to remain on the books. This means the regulations remain in force and will apply as scheduled. 

The EEOC’s regulations are generally applicable to wellness programs beginning with the 2017 plan year. The regulations limit the incentives that employers may offer in connection with a wellness program that involves a medical examination or disability-related inquiry. Most wellness programs that involve a health risk assessment or biometric screening are covered. The incentive cannot exceed 30% of the cost of employee-only coverage under the related health plan -- or twice that amount in the case of plans that offer incentives to both employees and their spouses.The regulations also impose notice and confidentiality requirements, in addition to limiting the amount of incentives.

The EEOC’s rules apply in addition to other wellness plan rules under HIPAA and the ACA, with sometimes inconsistent results. For example:

  • Under the HIPAA and ACA regulations, there is no limit on the amount of the incentive that can be offered in a “participation only” wellness program involving completion of a health risk assessment and biometric screening, but the same wellness program generally is subject to      Continue Reading...
EEOC Issues Final Wellness Regulations
By: Jason Lacey

The EEOC has issued final regulations under the ADA and GINA that address the extent to which employers may use incentives to encourage employees and their spouses to participate in wellness programs that involve disability-related inquiries or medical examinations. Although the regulations allow limited incentives, there are a number of conditions and restrictions. And there are some important differences between the EEOC's rules and other rules governing wellness programs, such as guidance under HIPAA and the ACA. Here are the highlights.

What Wellness Plans Are Covered?

These regulations apply to any wellness plan that involves a disability-related inquiry or medical examination. This will include most wellness plans that require completion of a health risk assessment or biometric screening. It also includes tobacco-related wellness plans that involve any type of medical test to screen for the presence of nicotine, but it does not include tobacco-related programs that merely ask an employee to certify whether they use tobacco (and do not require any other medical examinations).

In an important change from the proposed regulations, the final regulations apply to a wellness program without regard to whether the program is offered in connection with a group health plan. For example, an employer that offers a cash reward to employees for completing a health risk assessment or biometric screening may be subject to the limitations under the final regulations.

What Limits Apply to Wellness Incentives?

For a wellness plan covered by these regulations, the incentive offered to any employee may not exceed 30% of the full cost      Continue Reading...

Wellness Program Survives ADA Challenge
By: Jason Lacey

In a closely watched case, a federal judge in Wisconsin has denied the EEOC’s challenge to a wellness program maintained by Flambeau, Inc. The EEOC had sued the employer, alleging the wellness program violated the ADA.

The wellness program required employees to complete a health risk assessment and a biometric screening, but employees completing the program didn't just receive a premium reduction or other financial incentive. They were required to complete the program as a condition to obtaining coverage under the employer’s group health plan. Employees that chose not to participate in the wellness program were not allowed to enroll in the employer's health plan. 

The EEOC alleged that the wellness program violated the ADA’s prohibition against involuntary medical examinations and disability-related inquires. Although employees were not required to participate in the wellness program, the EEOC viewed the penalty for nonparticipation (loss of access to the group health plan) as too coercive, effectively making the wellness program an involuntary program. 

But the court side-stepped the question of voluntariness and concluded that a safe harbor under the ADA (which allows for bona fide underwriting activities) applied to the wellness program. Thus, the program did not violate the ADA without regard to whether it was voluntary. 

The court's decision to apply the ADA's underwriting safe harbor is consistent with a 2012 federal appeals court decision (Seff v. Broward County), but the EEOC has indicated it strongly agrees with that interpretation of the ADA. So we might expect further sparring between the EEOC and employers who choose      Continue Reading...

EEOC Proposes GINA Guidance on Wellness Plan Incentives for Spouses
By: Jason Lacey

The EEOC has released a proposed rule, a fact sheet, and a set of FAQs regarding the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and wellness plan incentives for spouses of employees.

Under the proposed rule, an employer may offer an incentive as part of a wellness plan for an employee’s spouse to provide information about the spouse’s current or past health status, so long as the wellness plan is part of a program that is reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease. Some additional conditions must also be satisfied, including that the total incentive for the employee and the spouse must not exceed 30% of the total cost of the group health plan coverage in which the employee and spouse are enrolled and that the spouse provide a voluntary, written authorization.  

This guidance is limited to programs that provide incentives for spouses to provide information about their current or past health status. It does not change existing GINA guidance that prohibits offering incentives to employees, spouses, or their children to provide their own genetic information, including family medical history.

These regulations are a companion to regulations under the ADA proposed by the EEOC earlier this year relating to wellness plan incentives offered to employees in exchange for undergoing a disability-related inquiry or medical examination. Under those regulations, employers generally may offer such incentives, so long as the amount of the incentives are limited to 30% of the total cost of employee-only coverage under the employer's group health plan. 

The ADA and GINA regulations      Continue Reading...

Federal Legislation Would Clarify Wellness Plan Treatment Under ADA and GINA
By: Jason Lacey

Federal legislation has been introduced that would clarify the treatment of employer wellness plans under the ADA and GINA. It is styled as the "Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act." Under the act, any wellness plan that meets the requirements imposed by regulations issued under HIPAA and the ACA would not be treated as violating the ADA or Title I or Title II of GINA solely because the plan provides a reward. 

The legislation would respond to confusion over the EEOC's position on how employer obligations under the ADA and GINA intersect with the HIPAA and ACA rules that allow providing a reward (or penalty) to employees who participate in a "health-contingent" wellness program. Although the EEOC has never taken a formal regulatory position on the issue, it has sued several employers over their wellness programs, including at least one program that appeared to satisfy the requirements under HIPAA and the ACA (see prior articles here, here, and here). 

The EEOC is said to be working on a set of regulations to address this issue that may be near release. Employers will want to keep an eye on both these legislative and regulatory developments, as they could have an important (and hopefully helpful) impact on wellness plan design.

A copy of Senate Bill 620, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act, is here

EEOC Catches Grief Over Wellness Plan Litigation
By: Donald Berner

The political maneuvering following the mid-term elections has begun.  As discussed in a prior post (click here), the expectation of more Congressional "oversight" continues to become a reality.  In a recent Senate hearing, the EEOC Commissioner and the EEOC General Counsel were roughed up a bit over the EEOC's recently filed wellness plan litigation.  (Click here for Jason's prior article on the litigation)  The clear message coming out of the Senate hearing was that the EEOC should think very carefully before engaging in the course of filing litigation against employers as it relates to wellness plans.  One of the criticisms directed at the EEOC was the lack of ADA guidance as it relates to wellness plans.  Look for this to get further attention as the new legislature convenes in 2015.   

EEOC Turns Up the Heat on Employer Wellness Plans
By: Jason Lacey

Adding to a flurry of recent activity (see here and here), the EEOC has challenged the wellness plan maintained by Honeywell International, alleging that it violates both the ADA and GINA. The EEOC is seeking a preliminary injunction against Honeywell that would stop further implementation of the plan.

Plan Terms. Based on the facts described in the EEOC’s court filings, Honeywell employees are asked to undergo a biometric screening that includes a blood draw. If the employee has family coverage, the employee’s spouse is asked to complete the biometric screening as well. If employees (or their spouses) do not complete the screening, they pay a “surcharge” on their annual premium of up to $2,500 (a base surcharge of $500, plus tobacco-related surcharges of $1,000 for individual coverage or $2,000 for family coverage). They also lose up to $1,500 in employer contributions to an HSA.

ADA - Voluntariness. The EEOC’s argument under the ADA is that the biometric screening under Honeywell’s plan is not voluntary and, thus, is a prohibited medical examination. Although employees are not required to submit to the biometric screening, the premium surcharges and lost HSA contributions are enough to render the screening involuntary.

ADA - Underwriting Safe Harbor. The EEOC also argues that the wellness plan is not protected by the ADA’s underwriting safe harbor. That safe harbor permits “establishing, sponsoring, observing or administering the terms of a bona fide benefit plan that are based on underwriting risks, classifying risks, or administering such risks that are based on      Continue Reading...

EEOC Challenges Another Wellness Plan Under the ADA
By: Jason Lacey

The EEOC has announced (here) the filing of another lawsuit challenging an employer’s wellness plan on the basis that it violates the ADA. Like a similar case filed in August (see coverage here), the EEOC alleges that the employer’s plan fails under the ADA because it is not a voluntary program.

Background. The wellness plan at issue in this case sounds fairly typical. Employees apparently were asked to submit to a biometric screening and complete a health risk assessment. So far, so good. But employees who declined to participate in the wellness plan are said to have had their health plan coverage canceled or to have been required to pay 100% of the cost of coverage under the employer's health plan. By comparison, employees who participated in the wellness plan were only required to pay 25% of the cost of coverage under the employer's health plan.

Something Doesn’t Add Up. The facts as stated by the EEOC aren’t totally consistent. First they say health-plan coverage was canceled when employees declined to participate in the wellness plan. Then they say higher health-plan costs were shifted to employees who declined to participate in the wellness plan. It can’t be both - at least not for the same employees. So we may not have a clear picture of the plan in question at this point.

Voluntariness. But whatever the facts may be, we can see that the EEOC is clearly focused on voluntariness. According to the press release: “Having to choose between complying with      Continue Reading...

EEOC Files ADA Lawsuit Over Employer Wellness Plan
By: Jason Lacey

The EEOC has filed a lawsuit against a Wisconsin employer, alleging that the employer's wellness plan violates the ADA. According to the EEOC's press release (here), this is the first lawsuit by the EEOC directly challenging a wellness program under the ADA.

Background. Although wellness plans are increasingly common, they raise a complex array of legal issues. Regulations addressing compliance with the HIPAA nondiscrimination requirements are well-developed now. But there is virtually no guidance addressing the manner in which the ADA applies to wellness plans. In particular, the ADA prohibits employers from requiring employees to undergo involuntary medical examinations, unless those examinations are clearly job-related, and it has never been clear where the line is on "voluntariness."

Bad Facts. Unfortunately, the facts of this case are bad enough that it may not provide much meaningful guidance. The EEOC's lawsuit alleges that the employer in this case required employees to participate in its wellness program (including what sounds like a fairly typical health questionnaire and biometric screening) and penalized those who refused by requiring them to pay 100% of the cost of coverage under the employer's health plan, plus a $50/month surcharge. Additionally, there is an allegation that the employer then terminated an employee for declining to participate in the wellness program.

Results Not Typical. All of these facts, if true, go well beyond what most typical employer wellness programs require or impose and would seem to be a fairly clear violation of the ADA's voluntariness requirement. So it's not clear how much      Continue Reading...

Minimum Value Regulations Clarify Treatment of Wellness Incentives
By: Jason Lacey

Buried deep within new regulations on the arcane "minimum value" requirement is important new guidance on how employer wellness incentives will impact both the minimum value and affordability analysis with respect to employer-provided health coverage.

Most Wellness Impact is Disregarded. The rule described in the regulation is fairly simple, although not favorable to employers. For purposes of determining whether health coverage is affordable to employees, any reward associated with participation in a wellness program (other than related to tobacco use) is ignored. This generally has the effect of increasing the amount the employee is treated as contributing toward the cost of coverage, thereby making the coverage less affordable.

Example. Assume, employees generally are required to pay $200 per month for employee-only coverage. But if the employees participate in a health risk assessment and basic biometric screening, they receive a discount of $50 per month (making the monthly cost $150). For purposes of determining whether the coverage is affordable, the employees are treated as having to pay $200 per month for coverage, even though they may actually qualify to pay only $150 per month.

There is a similar rule for minimum value, to the extent the wellness incentive impacts the cost-sharing structure of the plan (deductible, coinsurance, or copayments). Non-tobacco wellness programs are ignored in determining the plan's cost sharing, which impacts the determination whether the plan provides minimum value. For example, if a plan has a $2,000 deductible but provides a $500 reduction for participating in a non-tobacco-related wellness plan, the plan      Continue Reading...

EEOC Provides Informal Wellness Plan Guidance
By: Jason Lacey

One of the murkier issues with wellness plans is the manner in which they intersect with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I discuss some of the background on the issue here. A recent EEOC letter (here) provides an "informal discussion" of how the ADA applies to a particular type of wellness plan.

The Plan. The wellness plan at issue waived the deductible under a health plan for participants with serious medical conditions (e.g., diabetes) who enrolled in a disease-management program. Although the wellness program did not expressly require participants to complete a health risk assessment, the EEOC assumed that participants needed to make some disclosure about their health status to their employer to become eligible for the plan, thereby implicating the ADA.

Voluntariness. The EEOC reiterated that, because a wellness plan involves an employer inquiry into an employee's medical condition, the wellness plan must be voluntary. A plan is voluntary so long as participation is not required and employees who choose not to participate are not penalized. The plan in this case did not penalize non-participants, but it did provide a reward (waiver of deductible) for participants. The EEOC would not take a position on whether the availability of a reward renders a plan involuntary. 

Reasonable Accommodation. The EEOC also noted that a wellness plan generally must provide a reasonable accommodation to individuals who are unable to meet the required outcomes or engage in required activities due to a disability. For example, if a plan requires a participant to comply with a recommended      Continue Reading...

Agencies Release Joint Proposed Regulation on Wellness Plans
By: Jason Lacey

The IRS, DOL, and HHS have issued a joint proposed regulation addressing wellness plans and the wellness exception to the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules. 

Background. Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act, as added by the Affordable Care Act, provides statutory affirmation of the wellness-plan rules that have existed by regulation for several years as part of the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules (rules that prohibit, among other things, discrimination on the basis of health factors). It also gives the relevant governmental agencies (IRS, DOL, and HHS) express authority to issue further rules on wellness plans that increase the permissible reward or penalty to as much as 50% of the cost of associated heath-plan coverage.

Proposed Regulations. The proposed regulations largely follow the structure of the existing wellness-plan regulations, requiring, among other things, that wellness programs requiring a particular health outcome (e.g., smoking cessation, biometric screening results, minimum BMI, etc.) provide reasonable alternatives and limit the reward or penalty offered or imposed in connection with the plan. However, there are a couple of points worth highlighting:

  • Participation v. Health-Contingent. The proposed regulations label wellness programs as either "participatory" or "health-contingent." It is only the health-contingent programs that are subject to more rigorous regulation under the proposed rules. Participatory programs include fitness-club memberships, general health education, and other similar programs that do not provide for a reward or include any conditions based on satisfying a standard related to a health factor.
  • Size of Reward. The requirements that must      Continue Reading...
Court Rejects Challenge to Employer's Wellness Plan
By: Jason Lacey

In a closely watched case, a federal appeals court in Atlanta has rejected a challenge to a wellness plan maintained by Broward County, Florida for its employees. The case was brought by a former employee, who claimed the wellness plan violated the ADA by improperly requiring employees to submit to medical examinations.

As background, the ADA generally prohibits employers from requiring employees to undergo medical examinations or otherwise inquire of employees whether they are disabled. But purely voluntary medical examinations are permitted (as are bona fide fitness-for-duty examinations), and the ADA expressly allows employers to establish, sponsor, observe, or administer the terms of a bona fide benefit plan when those terms are based on underwriting risks, classifying risks, or administering risks. This latter rule is sometimes referred to as an underwriting "safe harbor" under the ADA.

The wellness plan in this case was fairly typical. Employees participating in the plan were subject to a health-risk assessment and a biometric screening (a finger prick for cholesterol and glucose testing). Participation was not required, but employees who did not participate were charged an extra $20 per pay period for their health-insurance coverage.

The court concluded the plan qualified for the underwriting safe harbor under the ADA and so did not violate the ADA. The wellness program was deemed to be a "term" of a bona fide benefit plan (the employer's major-medical plan), even though there was no written document for the wellness program.

There is a well-worn axiom that bad facts make bad law. This      Continue Reading...

Wellness Plans and Employee Genetic Information
By: Jason Lacey

I was interviewed for and quoted in an article (subscription required) in today's Wichita Business Journal highlighting the risk that an employer's wellness program might cross the line and result in the collection of employee genetic information in violation of the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The article is short and so does not get into the nuances of what is permitted and what is not, but the basic point is a good one: If you're asking employees to fill out a health risk assessment or similar questionnaire, you need to be thinking about the GINA requirements.

Here are some specific points to keep in mind:

  1. If you're using a vendor to run your wellness program, they likely will understand the law, but it's still your responsibility to make sure you're in compliance. At a minimum, you'll want to review (with legal counsel) the questionnaires and other documents employees will be asked to complete to see if there are any red flags.
  2. Genetic information, as defined for purposes of GINA, is broader than you might think. Family medical history, for example, is considered genetic information.
  3. Although the safe bet is to simply not request that employees provide family medical history or other genetic information, there are circumstances when it can be ok. In general, disclosures in connection with a wellness plan that are entirely voluntary and not made in connection with health insurance enrollment or underwriting are permitted.

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