Pricked for a pittance — workers share intimate health details with employers, but ‘wellness’ doesn’t work

Read this story today (Click for Slate)
Read this story today (Click for Slate)

Across America, workers are sharing the most intimate details of their lives with employers through gadgets like Fitbits — all to save a little money on life or health insurance.  It’s junk science meets Orwell meets Lenin.  And we are going down a crazy, creepy path.

“Take 10,000 steps and we’ll give you a bonus!” says the pamphlet. Or don’t, and you’ll pay a penalty, explains arithmetic.  After all, the equation has to balance out.

Here’s your must-read of the day: L.V. Anderson at Slate on sham company “wellness” programs, one very important slice of the problem I rant about as often as someone will listen. I don’t want to repeat much of what she wrote, because I want you to read her story. But in short, company wellness programs have very little science to back them up.  They are, however, allowing corporations to shift health care costs onto workers. Workers literally are giving their blood to their employers. In return, they get obvious advice like exercise more, or bad advice, suggesting eggs are as bad as candy bars.   And everyone gets overtested. Always, overtested.

The real drama in Anderson’s piece is that the federal law has evolved under both a Republican and a Democractic president to allow this — with both touting a single success story that turned out to be a lie.

Here’s the kicker in the piece. These programs are voluntary. But…they aren’t.

Burd called this program “completely voluntary” in the same paragraph that he explained individuals who didn’t pass these tests had to pay $780 more in annual premiums, or $1,560 more for family plans. This kind of doublespeak is par for the course in the world of corporate wellness, where avoiding a financial penalty is often framed as getting a discount.

Look, I understand why employers are desperate to do something — ANYTHING — to ease the burden of employee health care. The price tag is an estimated $12,000 annually per worker, and only going in one direction.  The wellness shams are just about the only thing they can do, outside directly making workers pay more.  So wellness can seem like a more humane option. And if a gadget can do the trick, even better!

But instead, the programs are really just another sign that America’s health care delivery machine is a deeply flawed, jerry-rigged, clunker that’s making everyone sicker.

I’m not a privacy zealot. I’m not.  I’m happy people take time to check me out before I get on an airplane.  In fact, I often wish they’d do more.  But when I trade my privacy for something, I want that something to be real.  Too often, technology is waved around like a magic solution to problems, and people buy it.  Snake oil. In the wake of 9/11, airports invested millions of dollars in facial recognition technology, placing travelers’ faces in databases forever — and we later learned the tech could be foiled with a pair of sunglasses. This story plays out again and again. You’ve been warned. What, exactly, are you getting for the blood-test prick at your workplace?

American workers are telling their employer their blood pressure, their glucose levels, their BMI…their sleep habits, their exercise. From such data, other data can easily be derived, such as when we get home at night, and perhaps even when we have sex. The rules governing all this data are lax at best, and as we know, subject to change at a whim.

And all of it is up for grabs to hackers.

Here is the future.
Here is the future.

What happens when a clever company equates nocturnal habits — like sex frequency — with job performance?  Wouldn’t an employment background company love to sell such information?  Crazy, you say?  Already, most American companies give (for free!) what is essentially a copy of every single paystub to an entity you’ve never heard of called The Work Number, owned by Equifax.  Yes, you are probably in their data. (Look and see!)

Who will draw a bright line on health data? I’m not counting on profit-driven corporations (burdened by exploding costs) to do that on their own.  Will you?

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About Bob Sullivan 1637 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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