Health

Your Employer Is After Your Health Information

Just how personal are your 'personal' records and genetic details these days? You might be surprised

Companies typically provide their employees with incentives to get to the gym, eat better, and lead a healthier lifestyle. It’s called “corporate wellness.”

In return, workers typically get a reduced rate on their health insurance plan or some other financial reward. The company gets one as well — a healthy workforce usually means a better bottom line for any business.

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What people don’t sign up for, typically, is sharing too much of their personal information — specifically, their DNA. But that’s exactly what a number of privacy advocacy groups, along with some politicians, are concerned might happen under a bill currently making its way through Congress.

The Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act (H.R. 1313) would make it easier for employers to gain access to genetic information about workers and their families. If people choose not to participate, they may be required to pay a penalty — possibly thousands of dollars.

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A spokeswoman for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce told The New York Times, “The legislation will reaffirm existing law and provide regulatory clarity so that employers can have the certainty they need to help lower health care costs for their employees.”

But a growing list of opponents, including dozens of major health care organizations, believe the measure will completely wipe out any protections individuals have over their own health care information under existing laws. Employers could mandate that employees undergo genetic testing and health screenings. The information provided would not include workers’ names — but that’s what they always say. It wouldn’t be difficult, especially within a small company, to match a genetic profile with the individual, STAT News reported.

“This is intrusive and coercive. It’s also a top-down attempt to control employee behaviors and lifestyles.”

Employers could conceivably discriminate against workers and their families if certain genetic tests show increased risks for health problems — at any point in the future.

“It was never a good idea for Congress to put workplace wellness and rewards/penalties into law as Obamacare did,” said Twila Brase, president and co-founder of Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom, a national patient-centered health freedom organization in St. Paul, Minnesota. “This is both intrusive and coercive. It’s also a top-down attempt to control employee behaviors and lifestyles. And note: A ‘reward’ is actually a penalty if you don’t get it. Either way, it’s coercive.”

The federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), established in 2008, currently prevents employers from coercing employees into sharing medical or genetic data.

GINA, which is not very strong, is weakened further by this bill, Brase told LifeZette.

The new bill says “information gained on a family member through genetic assessment of an employee cannot be held to be an infringement of the privacy of the family member.”

Related: Employee Wellness Programs ‘An Invasion of Privacy’

It goes on to state that “the collection of information about the manifested disease or disorder of a family member shall not be considered an unlawful acquisition of genetic information with respect to another family member as part of a workplace wellness program.”

“Republicans should not be in the business of writing laws that encourage coercion and intrusion by employers,” said Brase. “Republicans should support freedom, not coercion.”

A far better idea, she said, would be for Republicans to use tax reform to discourage employer-sponsored coverage and encourage individual ownership of affordable, portable health insurance policies. “This would keep employers from trying to interfere in the lives of employees and would all but end the problem of pre-existing conditions.”

The bill remains under review. Other House committees are scheduled to address the legislation before it can be taken up by the Senate.

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