Workplace wellness programs put employee privacy at risk

Story highlights

  • More employers see wellness as the latest promised solution to soaring health costs
  • Employers pressure workers to give unfamiliar companies detailed data about the most sensitive parts of their lives

Houston workers who checked the fine print said they weren't sure whether they were joining an employee wellness program or a marketing scheme.

Last fall the city of Houston required employees to tell an online wellness company about their disease history, drug and seat belt use, blood pressure and other delicate information.
The company, hired to improve worker health and lower medical costs, could pass the data to "third party vendors acting on our behalf," according to an authorization form. The information might be posted in areas "that are reviewable to the public." It might also be "subject to re-disclosure" and "no longer protected by privacy law."
    Employees could refuse to give permission or opt not to take the screen, called a health risk assessment -- but only if they paid an extra $300 a year for medical coverage.
    "We don't mind giving our information to our health care providers," said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, which objected so strongly along with other employees that the city switched to a different program. "But we don't want to give it to a vendor that has carte blanche to give that information to anybody they want to."
    Millions of people find themselves in the same position as that of the Houston cops. As more employers grasp wellness as the latest promised solution to soaring health costs, they're pressuring workers to give unfamiliar companies detailed data about the most sensitive parts of their lives.
    But whether or not that information stays private is anything but clear, an examination by Kaiser Health News shows.
    In many workplace wellness programs, "it seems by taking the health risk assessment you are waiving your privacy rights," said Jennifer Mathis, director of programs at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

    How wellness programs work

    At worst, shared information about sensitive conditions could