Last week I posted a news brief about a new bill that caused some controversy. That bill, the Preserving Employee Wellness Program Act, or HR 1313, would allow employers to offer lower insurance premiums for employees who share their personal genetic information with their employer.
Kurt Schanaman, a freelance technical writer and roofing supply specialist in Gering, Nebraska, left a comment on my story as an employee concerned about his privacy. So I asked him to write a little more about his position on this topic.
Supporters of HR 1313 point out that sharing one’s genetic information is in fact voluntary. The opposition states that although not technically forced, they are being coerced. Schanaman’s argument is a fleshed-out version of the latter. “If a person feels coerced into signing away rights to his or her body and possessions under threat of financial (or other) penalties, it is an abrogation of that person’s rights entirely and ceases to be truly voluntary,” he wrote.
“In August 2016 I was informed by my employer that I must choose to do a health risk assessment survey and submit to an annual biometric physical to qualify for the lowest possible health insurance premium for 2017. Included in the packet was a form I was to sign and provide to the medical practitioner so that my sensitive health data could be shared with a third party composed of people I don’t even know. Since I was facing up to a thirty percent premium increase for refusing to sign that paper and participate in these intrusive requirements, I realized that this amounted to a punitive form of coercion against me. There was no way I was going to sign away constitutional privacy rights to my medical (and soon, genetic) data to complete strangers.
“Human resources in today’s corporation would be in for a shock of a surprise were they to visit the workforce to ask how people feel about these outcome-based wellness programs with incentives (carrots) and disincentives (sticks). They may also be surprised to find out that workers are beginning to visit amongst themselves over these coercive encroachments on their privacy rights. It can be reasonably expected that before long, HR departments are going to learn that a large grassroots action campaign is brewing against them for implementing such draconian, intrusive rules. There is going to be a political backlash in 2018 over this also.
“None of these things will likely be realized by human resources officers, however, until enough workers have finally dumped their health benefits altogether in protest of such inhumane, unconstitutional practices. Such protest has already begun since I, and others, have started to notify workers across this nation about their constitutional privacy rights to this data, how valuable it truly is, how it can be abused or stolen and distributed via hacking and commercially backhanded activities, and how once a person has signed away rights to medical and genetic privacy (such as that which will be allowed to be asked for via bills like the ‘Preserving Employee Wellness Program Act – H.R. 1313’), all control is lost and the signing away of that information can never be undone.
“Human Resources should reconsider their actions. The proverbial ‘cat’ is out of the bag.”
Indeed, when I first began reporting and blogging about wellness, the disagreement over incentives was one of the first things I discovered and have heard a lot about ever since. The basic question is, by rewarding one group of people (example: wellness program participant sharing medical or personal information, people who try to quit smoking), are you inherently punishing the other group of people (example: employees concerned about their privacy, smokers not trying to quit)? Or is it a perception problem, a way in which an embittered employee chooses to perceive the situation because they didn’t get something?
My two cents? For something small — a $15 gift card to Starbucks or a 10 percent discount at the company gym, something relatively inconsequential like that — I understand that perception argument. But applying that lens to something that amounts to thousands of dollars a year in insurance premiums doesn’t hold. It’s much easier to see the situation as coercive, especially when sensitive genetic information is concerned.
Andie Burjek is an associate editor at Workforce. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.