Privacy advocates urge stronger protection of employee health data

Michelle Muckenthaler, 37, of Castle Rock, Colorado, walks along a greenbelt behind her office.

Story highlights

  • Advocates: Privacy laws need to be expanded to employers' wellness programs
  • Wellness programs allow employers to get personal medical information in some circumstances

Like millions of Americans, Michelle Muckenthaler joined her workplace wellness program this year, answering a bunch of questions about her health habits: What did she eat? How often did she exercise?

Next year, she'll also face a wellness exam, including tests to measure her cholesterol level, blood sugar and weight. Worried about the privacy of her personal information, she says she'll opt out, even though she will lose a discount off her premium.
"A $40 a month penalty is not enough for me to want to tell my employer what I'm doing with my health," said Muckenthaler, 37, who lives near Denver.
    The $6 billion a year workplace wellness industry is booming among employers looking for ways to slow health care spending. But so, too, are concerns about privacy.
    Many programs ask detailed health-related questions, and a growing number include medical tests. Some offer workers cash or credits toward insurance discounts if they allow the programs to track their grocery store purchases or the number of steps they take. As the programs delve into ever more sensitive areas — mental health, finances, sleep habits and pregnancy — advocates say existing privacy and anti-discrimination laws fall short.
    "I don't think the privacy rules are anywhere close to adequate," said Anna Slomovic, a lead researcher at the