Wellness Credits, What are they - Really? Featured

11:21am EDT September 6, 2012
Wellness Credits, What are they - Really?

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded $372 million to 44 various communities to help with the efforts of reducing obesity, smoking, increase physical activity and improve nutrition (HHS.gov, 3/19/10). It is uncertain if this American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has impacted the communities; and when the government grants were researched these amounts were earmarked for senior citizens. Today another award was released for 2012.

Employer groups are hearing from various sources the importance of wellness, says Danone Simpson, founder and CEO of Montage Insurance Solutions. Carriers are offering to assist with wellness efforts and many add as much as $44 in cost per year to the premiums. For larger employers Kaiser will send a bus to park outside workplaces testing employees for high cholesterol or strokes for a fee. “High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors leading to heart disease, heart attack and stroke. 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day” (American Heart Association, www.heart.org).

Lifestyle changes are needed and yet Americans are sitting in front of computers all day urged to be more physically active. The balance is falling on the employers’ shoulders who know if they have more than 50 employees they are now required to pay for medical insurance or be fined $2,000 per employee per year. So the Human Resources Departments are asked to create wellness programs to keep premium costs down. Pooled groups will have to have a community effort in order to accomplish this goal unless they are planning to grow into a larger employer who has control over their premium costs.

Yet, the buzz on the street is wellness. Today, August 29, 2012, the Obama administration announced, “The Public Health Training Centers (PHTC) is to improve the Nation’s public health system by strengthening the technical, scientific, managerial, and leadership competence of the current future public health workforce” (http://bhpr.hrsa.gov/grants/publichealth/phtc.html). Approximately 36 U.S. Government Universities have been given a grant worth an average of $650,106 in financial assistance to promote public health training for the third year in a row.

So what does this mean for employers? We are not sure yet. “Employer wellness incentive programs take a variety of forms, ranging from employer-provided direct incentives, such as pedometers or discounted health club memberships (participation only programs) to group health plan incentives that link healthcare discounts to meeting certain health targets, such as cholesterol or blood pressure standards (standard-based programs). The codified support for employer wellness programs in the PPACA demonstrates Congress’s intent to encourage these programs and, thus, enhance and encourage public wellness. However, whether offered as part of a health plan program subject to HIPAA or the PPACA extension, or as a separate employer program or policy not subject to HIPAA or the PPACA, wellness programs are still generally bound by federal, state and local nondiscrimination and privacy laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (“GINA”); Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”); and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Employers contemplating penalty or reward wellness programs should consider that few, if any, cases have addressed the application of these nondiscrimination laws to the wellness program penalty and reward provisions” (Hall, 2012, gshllp.com).

The only reimbursements are from employers to employees who participate in the employer sponsored programs. Today the employer is allowed to reimburse the employee a portion of their premium dollars by up to 20% of the cost of employee-only coverage and in 2014 that amount goes up to 30%; however this costs the employer more, while many are struggling to pay their portion of the premiums.

So what can an employer do? Employers need to make sure their broker is providing some of these services to their employees in a compliant way on a volunteer basis. And make sure their program is compliant or it can be deemed discriminatory in a court of law, “Despite PPACA’s clear legislative support for wellness efforts, employers fashioning penalty and reward wellness programs must consider nondiscrimination and privacy implications of such provisions” (Hall, 2012, gshllp.com).

Unraveling the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) is a full time job and the penalties and compliance landmines are plenty. Overtaxed HR departments need brokers who are working 24/7 to guard the employees and employer from tax burdens and who offer employee wellness incentives, since the government is not.

Danone Simpson is the founder and CEO at Montage Insurance Solutions. Reach her at (818) 676-0044 or danone@montageinsurance.com.

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