A new bill passed by a House committee last Wednesday would pressure workers into getting genetic tests – and giving their employers the results.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), could be incorporated into the GOP’s Obamacare replacement plan to encourage so-called workplace wellness programs. These are programs intended to improve employee health by, for instance, screening for medical conditions and encouraging healthy workplaces.
Workplace wellness programs have grown more common in recent years. But they’ve come at a cost to many workers. According to health news site STAT, during the Obama administration:
“Employers got virtually everything they wanted… The ACA allowed them to charge employees 30 percent, and possibly 50 percent, more for health insurance if they declined to participate in the ‘voluntary’ programs…”
Critics have charged that workplace wellness programs don’t actually get workers healthy. Instead of running the programs themselves, employers often contract vendors to run them. These vendors often rely on unscientific data to bolster their claims of efficacy, thus garnering more business. And employers are happy to play along, since they can use workplace wellness programs to shift healthcare costs onto workers.
Other concerns revolve around the programs’ privacy implications. By law, worker wellness vendors must anonymize genetic data before turning it over to employers. But in small companies, it can be easy to identify which genetic and health profile belongs to who. Plus, the vendors that run workplace wellness programs are permitted to sell the data they collect – including workers’ names – to third parties. Workers have complained of receiving sales pitches for running shoes and weight-loss programs after their health and genetic data was sold.
Under the new law, workers would not only be forced to participate in wellness programs when their employers offered them (or face steeper health insurance costs), they would also be forced to undergo genetic testing. Workers who refused genetic testing would be charged more for health insurance.
The bill is backed by the American Benefits Council, an organization that represents Apple, Nokia, Pfizer, and other large companies.
Proponents argue that the current law only extends policies that are already legal. A spokesperson for the House committee that Foxx chairs said:
“Those who are opposed to the bill are spreading false information in a desperate attempt to deny employees the choice to participate in a voluntary program that can reduce health insurance costs and encourage healthy lifestyle choices.
“We believe families should be empowered with that choice, and so did the Obama administration. It is another sad reminder of just how extreme the Democrat party and their liberal allies are becoming.”
But according to Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law:
“What this bill would do is completely take away the protections of existing laws.”
In a letter to the Foxx and her committee, Nancy Cox, president of the American Society of Human Genetics, wrote:
“[The bill] would allow employers to ask employees invasive questions about their and their families’ health, as well as genetic tests they and their families have undergone. It would further allow employers to impose stiff financial penalties on employees who choose to keep such information private, thus empowering employers to coerce their employees into providing their health and genetic information.”
Featured image via YouTube video.