EEOC Wellness Regulations Sent to EEOC For Review (AARP v US EEOC)

The United States District Court for the District of DC has concluded in the case of AARP v. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that the EEOC’s final wellness regulations are arbitrary and capricious, and has therefore sent them back to the EEOC for review. The regulations address the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) on employer-sponsored wellness programs.

The Plaintiff in the case, the AARP, argued that permitting incentives of up to 30% of the cost of coverage is an unreasonable interpretation of the term “voluntary” because the incentive is too high to give employees a meaningful choice whether to participate in programs requiring disclosure of ADA-protected information. It further argued that the EEOC’s reversal of its prior position on the meaning of “voluntary”, which precluded incentives, was unsupported, inadequately explained, and thus, arbitrary and capricious.

The court ruled that the EEOC has not justified its conclusion that the 30% incentive level is a reasonable interpretation of voluntariness. Rejecting the EEOC’s argument that 30% is appropriate because it harmonizes the EEOC regulations with HIPAA as amended by the ACA, the court explained that HIPAA’s 30% incentive cap is not intended to serve as an interpretation of the term “voluntary” since voluntariness of participation is not an issue under HIPAA. Moreover, the court pointed out, the EEOC regulations are inconsistent with the HIPAA regulations in other respects. For instance, the EEOC regulations extend the 30% cap to participatory wellness programs to which the HIPAA cap does not apply. While holding that the EEOC made its decision arbitrarily, the court did not vacate the regulations, noting that they have been applicable for eight months. Instead, the court remanded the regulations to the EEOC for reconsideration.  For now, the EEOC’s final wellness regulations will remain in effect, pending the EEOC’s review of the regulations.

Background

Wellness programs are regulated in part by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as amended by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as by HIPAA’s implementing regulations.

HIPAA prevents health plans and insurers from discriminating on the basis of “any health status related factor,” but allows covered entities to offer “premium discounts or rebates” on a plan participant’s copayments or deductibles in return for that individual’s compliance with a wellness program. A “reward” or incentive may include a discount on insurance costs or a penalty that increases the plan participant’s costs because of non-participation in the wellness program. See 26 C.F.R. § 54.9802-1(f)(1)(i).

The ACA’s amendments to HIPAA, and the accompanying implementing regulations, allow plans and insurers to offer incentives of up to 30% of the cost of coverage in exchange for an employee’s participation in a health-contingent wellness program, a kind of wellness program in which the reward is based on an insured individual’s satisfaction of a particular health-related factor. See Incentives for Nondiscriminatory Wellness Programs in Group Health Plans (“the 2013 HIPAA regulations” or “2013 HIPAA rule”), 78 Fed. Reg. 33,158, 33,180. Neither the ACA nor the 2013 HIPAA regulations impose a cap on incentives that may be offered in connection with participatory wellness programs, which are programs that do not condition receipt of the incentive on satisfaction of a health factor. Id. at 33,167.

However, because employer-sponsored wellness programs often involve the collection of sensitive medical information from employees, including information about disabilities or genetic information, these programs often implicate the ADA and GINA as well. As both the ADA and GINA are administered by EEOC, this brings wellness programs within EEOC’s purview.

The ADA prohibits employers from requiring medical examinations or inquiring whether an individual has a disability unless the inquiry is both job-related and “consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(A). But the ADA makes some allowances for wellness programs: it provides that an employer may conduct medical examinations and collect employee medical history as part of an “employee health program,” as long as the employee’s participation in the program is “voluntary”. Id. § 12112(d)(4)(B). The term “voluntary” is not defined in the statute.

Similarly, GINA prohibits employers from requesting, requiring, or purchasing “genetic information” from employees or their family members.  The definition of genetic information includes an individual’s genetic tests, the genetic tests of family members such as children and spouses, and the manifestation of a disease or disorder of a family member. Like the ADA, GINA contains an exception that permits employers to collect this information as part of a wellness program, as long as the employee’s provision of the information is voluntary. Again, the meaning of “voluntary” is not defined in the statute.

Thus, while HIPAA and its implementing regulations expressly permit the use of incentives in wellness programs, uncertainty existed as to whether the “voluntary” provisions of the ADA and GINA permit the use of incentives in those wellness programs that implicate ADA- or GINA-protected information.

The EEOC previously took the position that in order for a wellness program to be “voluntary,” employers could not condition the receipt of incentives on the employee’s disclosure of ADA- or GINA-protected information. However, in 2016 the EEOC promulgated new rules reversing this position. Those are the rules at issue in this case. The new ADA rule provides that the use of a penalty or incentive of up to 30% of the cost of self-only coverage will not render “involuntary” a wellness program that seeks the disclosure of ADA-protected information. See ADA Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 31,133–34. Likewise, the new GINA rule permits employers to offer incentives of up to 30% of the cost of self-only coverage for disclosure of information, pursuant to a wellness program, about a spouses’s manifestation of disease or disorder, which, as noted above, falls within the definition of the employee’s “genetic information” under GINA.2 See GINA Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 31,144.

Unlike the 2013 HIPAA regulations, which place caps on incentives only in health-contingent wellness programs, the incentive limits in the new GINA and ADA rules apply both to participatory and health-contingent wellness programs.

EEOC Issues Proposed Regulations Regarding Wellness Program Incentives

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued proposed regulations under Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) regarding employer wellness programs that are part of group health plans. The proposed rule provides that employers may provide limited financial and other incentives in exchange for an employee’s spouse providing information about his or her current or past health status information.

Background

Title II of GINA prohibits employers covered by the law from using genetic information in making decisions about employment. It restricts employers and other entities covered by GINA from requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information, unless one or more of six narrow exceptions applies. In addition, it strictly limits entities covered by GINA from disclosing genetic information. EEOC’s current regulations implementing GINA prohibit employers from offering incentives in return for genetic information. This requirement has come in conflict with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provisions that encourage employers to use wellness programs, including significant incentives. The proposed regulations should make it easier to comply with GINA while taking advantage of the wellness incentives permitted under the ACA.

  • One of the narrow exceptions to GINA’s prohibition on requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information applies when an employee voluntarily accepts health or genetic services offered by an employer, including such services offered as part of a wellness program.
  • The statute and EEOC’s GINA regulations say that “genetic information” includes, among other things, information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of an individual.” The term “family members” includes spouses.
  • Because information about the current or past health status of spouses and other family members is genetic information about an employee, EEOC’s current GINA regulations could be read as prohibiting employers from offering incentives in return for a spouse providing his or her current or past health information. The proposed rule explains how employers may lawfully offer incentives for such information under GINA.

The Proposed Rules

The proposed rule would permit employers to offer limited incentives for the employee’s spouse to provide current or past health status information as part of a wellness program, as follows:

    • An employer may offer, as part of its health plan, a limited incentive (in the form of a reward or penalty) to an employee whose spouse (1) is covered under the employee’s health plan; (2) receives health or genetic services offered by the employer, including as part of a wellness program; and (3) provides information about his or her current or past health status. Information about current or past health status usually is provided as part of a health risk assessment (HRA), which may include a questionnaire or medical examination, such as a blood pressure test or blood test to detect high cholesterol or high glucose levels.
    • The total incentive may not exceed 30 percent of the total cost of the plan in which the employee and any dependents are enrolled. The incentive may be financial or in-kind (e.g., time-off awards, prizes, and other items of value).
    • For example, if an employee and his or her spouse are enrolled in self and family coverage that costs $14,000, the maximum incentive the employer may offer the employee and spouse to provide information on current or past health status as part of a wellness program is $4,200 (30 percent of $14,000).
    • The maximum portion of an incentive that may be offered to an employee alone may not exceed 30 percent of the total cost of self only coverage. So, if the employer in the example above offers self-only coverage at a total cost of $6,000, the maximum portion of the $4,200 incentive that may be offered for the employee’s participation is $1,800 (30 percent of $6,000). The rest of the incentive ($2,400 in the example above) may be offered for the spouse’s participation or for the employee, spouse, and/or employee’s other dependents who are covered by the health plan participating in activities designed to promote health or prevent disease. These could include programs that reward participants for walking a certain amount each week or for attending nutrition or weight loss classes.

The proposed rule also provides that any health or genetic services an employer offers must be reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease. This means that the service must have a reasonable chance of improving the health of, or preventing disease in, participating individuals. It also means that an employer-sponsored wellness program must not be overly burdensome, a subterfuge for violating Title II of GINA or other laws prohibiting employment discrimination, or highly suspect in the method chosen to promote health or prevent disease.

The proposed rule adds a new provision stating that employers may not require employees (or employees’ spouses or dependents covered by the employee’s health plan) to agree to the sale, or waive the confidentiality, of their genetic information as a condition for receiving an incentive or participating in a wellness program.

Proposed Rules

EEOC Q&As

EEOC Proposes Amendments to ADA Regulations regarding Employer Wellness Programs

On April 20, 2015 the EEOC released proposed amendments to regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) related to employer wellness programs. The proposed rule provides guidance on the extent to which employers may use incentives to encourage employees to participate in wellness programs that are part of their group health plans, and that include disability-related inquiries and/or medical examinations.  The proposed rules explain how a wellness program that includes incentives for participation can satisfy the “voluntary medical examination” exception to the ADA’s prohibition on “making disability-related inquiries or requiring medical examinations”.  The exception allows “voluntary medical examinations, including voluntary medical histories, which are part of an employee health program available to employees at that work site.”

This is the latest action in an ongoing turf battle between the EEOC (which administers the ADA) and the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and HHS (which administer the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules).  HHS has taken a liberal approach, allowing wellness programs to impose a 30% penalty for failure to participate in wellness programs (and up to 50% in the case of tobacco prevention or reduction programs), in accordance with the Affordable Care Act’s policy of encouraging wellness programs.  The EEOC has traditionally taken a more conservative view, holding such a large incentive would violate the ADA because it would render the program not voluntary.

The proposed rules permit incentives as high as 30% to encourage participation in a wellness program that includes disability-related inquiries or medical examinations, as long as participation is voluntary.  Voluntary means that the employer:

(1) does not require employees to participate;

(2) does not deny coverage under any of its group health plans or particular benefits packages within a group health plan for non-participation or limit the extent of such coverage (except pursuant to allowed incentives); and

(3) does not take any adverse employment action or retaliate against, interfere with, coerce, intimidate, or threaten employees who do not participate.

In addition, an employer must provide a notice that clearly explains what medical information will be obtained, who will receive the medical information, how the medical information will be used, the restrictions on its disclosure, and the methods the covered entity will employ to prevent improper disclosure of the medical information. Finally, the proposed rule allows the disclosure of medical information obtained by wellness programs to employers only in aggregate form, except as needed to administer the health plan.

icon   The Proposed Rules

icon   EEOC Q&As on the Proposed Rules