Affordable Care Act and Employee Health

Posted on May 14, 2012 I Written By

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.

Over at healthaffairs.org, there was a super interesting brief on Affordable Care Act and its forthcoming changes regarding employee health. Starting in 2014, employers will be able to offer incentives to employees regarding their enrollment in employee wellness programs. Employers can offer incentives such as monetary rewards for positive employee behavior like enrolling in a smoking cessation program, or joining a gym at discounted rates. Or these can work like the proverbial stick, by imposing penalties on non-compliant employees, e.g. increasing the cost of participating in an employer health plan by $1000 for employees who say they have smoked in the last year.

Now all those good components of the ACA will still be applicable i.e insurance companies will not be able to refuse patients based on prior medical history. But I can’t help but notice the irony of the ACA being used to discriminate between a healthy employee and a sick one.

One of the examples cited in the brief is that it will be legal for an employer to offer a health plan to employees who fulfil certain wellness criteria such as enrolling in a gym in addition to the other health plan options available to its other employees. The cost of the other health plan options to a truly unwell employee could well be so exorbitant as to make it impossible for him/her to enroll in it. Options for such employees could be to enroll through a spouse’s plan or purchase private insurance through the health information exchanges. The brief says that there are plugs for these sorts of employer excesses, such as companies with over 50 employees will be penalized even if one employee enrolls in a subsidized state insurance program in lieu of the company sponsored one.

I’m also wondering if there will be any kind of guidelines for companies to design their incentive/penalty programs. Health and wellness are incredibly nuanced issues. For every person who can exercise a half hour a day and lose a pound a week, there are those who seemingly subsist on air and water and barely make a dent in their BMI. Genes determine plenty of factors in a person’s helath profile, including weight, propensity to develop certain conditions and so on. It makes me wonder if we’re oversimplifying things by gauging employee wellness based on criteria such as gym enrollment.

Plus what if you have lots of people like me who might enroll in a gym and never see the inside of it beyond the first few days? Simple enrollment might not be enough. But, to my mind at least, tying enrollment to outcomes has the unfortunate whiff of a mini nanny state in the making. Who wants to be the person at the company weigh-in whose BMI has come down by .1 while the muscled, rippled company health club employee looks at you quizzically? Not me.

I also worry about the unwell employee who feels pressured into signing up for risky activities (from his/her health perspective), simply in order to get the rewards offered or to avoid the penalties. S/he might have something truly tangible to lose both ways.

I would love to see how ACA transforms in the next couple of years but right now I think I have way too many unanswered questions.