Health Care Workers Leader Warns Of Forced ‘Wellness’ Programs

WASHINGTON—A health care union leader is warning that workers nationwide, especially those toiling for large firms, could find themselves pushed into coercive corporate “wellness” programs or face paying fines and higher insurance premiums, come Jan. 1.

And the catch, adds John Borsos, Secretary-Treasurer of the California-based National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is there is no reliable data showing the wellness programs even work.  Further, most workers confronted with such programs under a prior health care privacy law have turned them down, as invasions of privacy.

Borsos spoke as controversy continues over the rollout of the websites handling worker enrollment in health care exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care law.   The rocky rollout obscures ACA’s other problems, said Borsos, whose parent union, National Nurses United, supports “Medicare for All.”

“We should take the profit motive out of health care through Medicare for all, and not have the private-based health care system,” he told a Dec. 17 press session in D.C.

One other ACA problem, other union leaders note, is the Obama administration’s decision, so far, not to give multi-employer health care plans – such as those common in the construction industry – the same ACA tax treatment that private insurers will get.  That could force the multi-employer plans to drop 20 million people from their rolls.

Borsos says the $6 billion “wellness program” industry has convinced 92% of all large employers to offer such plans to their workers.  But only 20% of workers have signed up for them.  The difference under ACA, he says, is that the 2010 law lets firms slap individual insurance premium increases of $20-$50/month on workers who don’t participate in such wellness efforts.

Advocates of wellness programs, such as weight reduction and anti-smoking efforts, say they cut future health care costs through enrolling people in illness-prevention efforts.  That’s fine if they’re voluntary, Borsos said, not if they’re coercive.

And the reason most workers whose firms now offer such wellness programs turn them down, he added, is that either the programs are so mild they’re ineffective, or they feature health questionnaires with extremely personally invasive questions and no guarantee of worker privacy.  They also offer firms a way to control workers’ lives outside the workplace, Borsos added.

“The invasive programs” under a prior health care privacy law “are 38%-40% of
the total” of all wellness programs companies offer, said Borsos.  His union represents at least one group of workers, at Kaiser Permanente, subject to a wellness program.

“The (invasive) questions are things like ‘During the last four months, how much did your health problems affect your productivity?’ or ‘Are you currently being treated for depression by a psychiatrist or psychologist?’ or ‘How much do you weigh?’

“Employees are assured their responses are confidential, but there’s no assurance of that if their employer is also their health care provider,” he said.

Borsos’ union has “actively opposed these (wellness) programs at the bargaining table,” he said.  “If the employer wants voluntary participation, that’s fine.  But we’ve resisted the coercive component.”

The Affordable Care Act could lock the coercion into place, either from insurers or employers, come Jan. 1, he warns.  “And that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” Borsos concludes.