You know the drill.  A manufacturer advertises a new drug, warning, of course, that some users may suffer serious side effects.  A year or two later, lawyers counter-advertise for new clients with those conditions who took the drug.  There follows, in some cases, a campaign to remove the “bad drug” from the market.  On June 21, 2016, the EEOC published a Sample Notice, to be given by employer-sponsored wellness programs.  Some parts of it remind the reader of a lawyer’s TV ad – “Have you been injured by a bad wellness program?  You may have a right to compensation.”  Here’s the full text.

NOTICE REGARDING WELLNESS PROGRAM

[Name of wellness program] is a voluntary wellness program available to all employees. The program is administered according to federal rules permitting employer-sponsored wellness programs that seek to improve employee health or prevent disease, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, as applicable, among others. If you choose to participate in the wellness program you will be asked to complete a voluntary health risk assessment or “HRA” that asks a series of questions about your health-related activities and behaviors and whether you have or had certain medical conditions (e.g., cancer, diabetes, or heart disease). You will also be asked to complete a biometric screening, which will include a blood test for [be specific about the conditions for which blood will be tested.] You are not required to complete the HRA or to participate in the blood test or other medical examinations.

However, employees who choose to participate in the wellness program will receive an incentive of [indicate the incentive] for [specify criteria]. Although you are not required to complete the HRA or participate in the biometric screening, only employees who do so will receive [the incentive].

Additional incentives of up to [indicate the additional incentives] may be available for employees who participate in certain health-related activities [specify activities, if any] or achieve certain health outcomes [specify particular health outcomes to be achieved, if any]. If you are unable to participate in any of the health-related activities or achieve any of the health outcomes required to earn an incentive, you may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation or an alternative standard. You may request a reasonable accommodation or an alternative standard by contacting [name] at [contact information].

The information from your HRA and the results from your biometric screening will be used to provide you with information to help you understand your current health and potential risks, and may also be used to offer you services through the wellness program, such as [indicate services that may be offered]. You also are encouraged to share your results or concerns with your own doctor.

Protections from Disclosure of Medical Information

We are required by law to maintain the privacy and security of your personally identifiable health information. Although the wellness program and [name of employer] may use aggregate information it collects to design a program based on identified health risks in the workplace, [name of wellness program] will never disclose any of your personal information either publicly or to the employer, except as necessary to respond to a request from you for a reasonable accommodation needed to participate in the wellness program, or as expressly permitted by law. Medical information that personally identifies you that is provided in connection with the wellness program will not be provided to your supervisors or managers and may never be used to make decisions regarding your employment.

Your health information will not be sold, exchanged, transferred, or otherwise disclosed except to the extent permitted by law to carry out specific activities related to the wellness program, and you will not be asked or required to waive the confidentiality of your health information as a condition of participating in the wellness program or receiving an incentive. Anyone who receives your information for purposes of providing you services as part of the wellness program will abide by the same confidentiality requirements. The only individual(s) who will receive your personally identifiable health information is (are) [indicate who will receive information such as “a registered nurse,” “a doctor,” or “a health coach”] in order to provide you with services under the wellness program.

In addition, all medical information obtained through the wellness program will be maintained separate from your personnel records, information stored electronically will be encrypted, and no information you provide as part of the wellness program will be used in making any employment decision. [Specify any other or additional confidentiality protections if applicable.] Appropriate precautions will be taken to avoid any data breach, and in the event a data breach occurs involving information you provide in connection with the wellness program, we will notify you immediately.

You may not be discriminated against in employment because of the medical information you provide as part of participating in the wellness program, nor may you be subjected to retaliation if you choose not to participate.

If you have questions or concerns regarding this notice, or about protections against discrimination and retaliation, please contact [insert name of appropriate contact] at [contact information].

This or a similar notice is required by ADA and GINA rules that the EEOC published on May 17, 2016.  Along with the Sample Notice, EEOC released this Q&A guidance.

  1. If wellness program participants already get a notice under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), do they need to get a separate ADA notice?

Employers that already provide a notice that informs employees what information will be collected, who will receive it, how it will be used, and how it will be kept confidential, may not have to provide a separate notice under the ADA. However, if an existing notice does not provide all of this information, or if it is not easily understood by employees, then employers must provide a separate ADA notice that sets forth this information in a manner that is reasonably likely to be understood by employees.

  1. Who must provide the notice?

An employer may have its wellness program provider give the notice, but the employer is still responsible for ensuring that employees receive it.

  1. Does the notice have to include the exact words in the EEOC sample notice?

No. As long as the notice tells employees, in language they can understand, what information will be collected, how it will be used, who will receive it, and how it will be kept confidential, the notice is sufficient. Employers do not have to use the precise wording in the EEOC sample notice. The EEOC notice is written in a way that enables employers to tailor their notices to the specific features of their wellness programs.

  1. When should employees get the notice?

The requirement to provide the notice takes effect as of the first day of the plan year that begins on or after January 1, 2017 for the health plan an employer uses to calculate any incentives it offers as part of the wellness program. For more information about which plan to use in calculating wellness program incentives, refer to EEOC’s questions and answers on the ADA rule and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) rule. Once the notice requirement becomes effective, the EEOC’s rule does not require that employees get the notice at a particular time (e.g., within 10 days prior to collecting health information). But they must receive it before providing any health information, and with enough time to decide whether to participate in the program. Waiting until after an employee has completed an HRA or medical examination to provide the notice is illegal.

  1. Is an employee’s signed authorization required?

No. The ADA rule only requires a notice, not signed authorization, though other laws, like HIPAA, may require authorization. Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) requires prior, written, knowing, and voluntary authorization when a wellness program collects genetic information, including family medical history. (See Q&A 7 below.)

  1. In what format should the notice be provided?

The notice can be given in any format that will be effective in reaching employees being offered an opportunity to participate in the wellness program. For example, it may be provided in hard copy or as part of an email sent to all employees with a subject line that clearly identifies what information is being communicated (e.g., “Notice Concerning Employee Wellness Program”). Avoid providing the notice along with a lot of information unrelated to the wellness program as this may cause employees to ignore or misunderstand the contents of the notice. If an employee files a charge with EEOC and claims that he or she was unaware of a particular medical examination conducted as part of a wellness program, EEOC will examine the contents of the notice and all of the surrounding circumstances to determine whether the employee understood what information was being collected, how it was being used, who would receive it, and how it would be kept confidential.

Employees with disabilities may need to have the notice made available in an alternative format. For example, if you distribute the notice in hard copy, you may need to provide a large print version to employees with vision impairments, or may have to read the notice to a blind employee or an employee with a learning disability. A deaf employee may want a sign language interpreter to communicate information in the notice, whether the notice is in hard copy or available electronically. Notices distributed electronically should be formatted so that employees who use screen reading programs can read them.

  1. What notice must employers provide for spouses participating in an employer’s wellness program?

As was the case prior to the issuance of the rules in 2016, GINA requires that an employer that offers health or genetic services and requests current or past health status information of an employee’s spouse obtain prior, knowing, written, and voluntary authorization from the spouse before the spouse completes a health risk assessment. Like the ADA notice, the GINA authorization has to be written so that it is reasonably likely to be understood by the person providing the information. It also has to describe the genetic information being obtained, how it will be used, and any restrictions on its disclosure.

While problematic, the Sample Notice and the guidance fairly portray the published rules.  For employers trying hard to do the right thing, the government seems to have no end of right things for you to do.