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Could workplace wellness plans lead to workplace discrimination?

An encouraging trend in American health has taken hold in recent years, promoting accessibility and prevention as standards for care. People throughout the state of Minnesota, and across the country, are taking control over their health and healthcare options by showing support for more affordable, incentive-based medical plans. And as new laws put in place by the Obama administration begin to go into effect, some companies are already encouraging their employees to join workplace wellness programs. Some early studies do suggest that workers and employers alike may enjoy long-term benefits from such incentive-driven health plans, but there is also evidence that these same programs could lead to a new form of workplace discrimination.

As the most comprehensive work yet on the subject, a newly published study profiles what affects one workplace wellness plan had on employees and their families. In addition to looking at medical results, the study also addresses the financial impact of covering such a program. Under the wellness program, the study found that more patients received preventative care and medications, and fewer required hospitalization. Consequently, the employer's expenses did not seem to go down.

The study only evaluated one workplace wellness program in action, but it exposed some interesting questions and risks. By encouraging employees to enlist in a healthy lifestyle program, could a company actually be engaging in health discrimination. After all, some employees could receive financial rewards for meeting goals like weight loss or not smoking, while others would not. In a sense, incentives to be healthier could inadvertently create penalties for being less healthy.

No doubt, many company-endorsed wellness programs can and will serve in the best interest of employees and their families. However, workers and employers must be aware of the potential for unfair treatment such plans may create.

Source: Minnesota Public Radio, "Study: No quick savings from workplace wellness," Ricardo Alonzo-Zaldivar, March 5, 2013

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