Keeping workers healthy may harm your bottom line

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

Long-term care operators are in the business of solving problems. They make problems disappear for residents, families and the government. And let's not forget employees.

One of the more interesting new ways they are helping this last group is through wellness assistance. These programs take various forms, but they share a general goal, which is to promote and support employees' health, safety and well being.

To be fair, more than altruism is involved. Such programs also give employers a healthier workforce. Moreover, wellness programs can greatly reduce the odds that facilities will have to deal with high-cost health claims.

It would appear that if there is one cohort ripe for wellness assistance, it's the folks who make a living in this field. I'm hardly one to talk, but let's face it: Many who toil in this sector are not exactly in what might be called peak physical condition.

So a program that helps long-term staff live in more healthy ways would seem like a no-brainer, right? Not so fast.

Increasingly, these programs are landing employers in big trouble.

Consider what happened to CVS, which just paid $12.7 billion to buy Omnicare. In 2013, CVS unveiled a wellness program, but with a catch: Participating workers were required to complete a free health screening and wellness review - or pay $600 more annually for health insurance. Last year, a cashier sued, claiming the company required her to disclose information about her weight, and level of sexual activity.

More recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Honeywell International Inc. The action was intended to stop the company from imposing penalties on employees who refuse to undergo wellness-related testing. The EEOC also filed two earlier, similar lawsuits against smaller firms.

So are wellness programs good-intentioned efforts to help employees? Or a deceptive and possibly illegal way for companies to interfere in workers lives? Where you stand on those questions is probably related to where you sit.

To help provide some clarity, the EEOC issued a proposed rule earlier this year. According to the EEOC, the measure will provide “much needed guidance” to employers and employees. But given the nasty feedback the measure has generated from both sides, it's safe to say that the issue is far from resolved.

So what's the takeaway here for providers? That no good deed goes unpunished? Perhaps. But a more important lesson may be this: When doing something nice, one must still play by the rules. Even if it's unclear what those rules actually are.

John O'Connor is the Editorial Director at McKnight's.
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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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