Wellness Programs Spur Rising Tension Between Businesses, Obama Administration

One part of the Obama administration seems to be attacking a program prescribed by the president's own health law—and CEOs are said to be fuming.

A medical assistant, right, checks the blood pressure of a patient at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.

A medical assistant, right, checks the blood pressure of a patient at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Is the Obama administration bent on destroying a core part of Obamacare?

That question is reportedly on the minds of corporate executives flying to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday. Members of the Washington lobby group Business Roundtable are said to be exasperated because the administration's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been suing companies over their wellness programs—which the companies say they implemented because of Obama's signature 2010 health-care law.

Some executives are so keyed up by these lawsuits, against Honeywell International and two other businesses, that they're threatening to side with anti-Obamacare forces if the EEOC doesn't back off, Reuters reported Saturday. And with a Republican-led Senate convening in January, the health law is likely to be back in the legislative spotlight. 

Business Roundtable President John Engler in a letter Nov. 14 asked the cabinet secretaries who oversee Obamacare to “thwart all future inappropriate actions against employers who are complying with” the law's wellness rules, according to Reuters.

You could forgive company executives for their confusion. A major tenet of the law was to encourage people to live healthier lifestyles by not smoking, controlling weight, and so on, in order to drive down costly emergency-room visits. So to boost preventative care, many companies have developed so-called wellness programs. Those programs must be voluntary for employees, but often come with incentives to push employees to submit to medical examinations and receive advice on fitness, nutrition, and other health issues. The EEOC argues that thousand-dollar surcharges on employees who don't participate in the screenings essentially means the program isn't voluntary.

Earlier this month, a judge in Minneapolis declined the EEOC's request to block Honeywell from assessing the health insurance-related surcharges. The EEOC is “woefully out of step with the health-care marketplace and with the core intent” of Obama’s health-care initiative, the company said in an October statement. “The incentives we provide are specifically sanctioned by two separate federal statutes,” including the Affordable Care Act.

The EEOC argues in court papers that assessing insurance surcharges on employees who don't comply with the wellness program violates the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which bars employers from compelling medical examinations that aren't job-related. 

“What is better public policy and who is likely to succeed are not measures this court is prepared to decide,” U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery told the lawyers. “There are a number of fascinating issues for debate at a later time.” 

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