Opinion

Government Should Promote Wellness, Not Impede It

We all know that obesity and related chronic health conditions have a significant impact on our health care system, economy, and even national security.  Two in three Americans are overweight and issues related to obesity cost the nation $190 billion annually. Even more concerning is a new Gallup-Healthways poll showing a record number of Americans moving into the dangerous category of clinical obesity. We are in desperate need of a solution. Yet in the face of these disturbing trends, it’s troubling that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would choose to further regulate a potential remedy: corporate wellness programs that allow employees to gain greater control of their health.

Recognizing the significant impact wellness programs have on employees’ health and wellness, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) incentivizes corporations to offer such benefits to employees. Data has shown again and again that these wellness programs empower individuals and families to get healthy and gain more control over their health care costs in the process. These programs are designed to help people make changes to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. At the same time, they lower the health care costs of corporations so that these savings can, ultimately, be invested in ways that grow the economy and create more jobs. This, in turn, lowers the nation’s overall health care bill.

Yet the EEOC recently proposed more regulation of wellness programs, citing issues with privacy and concerns about certain programs being mandatory, in violation of the ACA rules that require programs to be voluntary. There may be a few bad apples that try to use wellness programs to pass health care costs onto their employees – which is specifically prohibited under the ACA. But these companies are in the minority. Rather than punish the majority of companies that offer programs that help employees and comply with the law, the EEOC instead should use its resources to seek out and punish the few bad apples.

Unnecessarily targeting companies with new restrictions is simply a bad idea. The challenges we face in combatting the obesity epidemic are so great that no individual or group can solve them alone. Testimonials from employees with access to support from wellness programs show they are able to lose weight, lower blood pressure and lower their risk for developing chronic diseases such as diabetes. Placing restrictions on such programs that clearly benefit employees is counterproductive.

Corporate wellness programs are a prime example of how collaboration between business and government can promote positive change in Americans’ lives. What started as an idea from corporations was bolstered by government through incentives and provisions in the ACA. This is indicative of the collaboration that will help realize the potential social and economic benefit from employee wellness programs. This potential must compel us to do everything that we can to encourage broad dialogue and partnership – not regulation – to ensure the success of such programs.

As the EEOC reviews public comments on its proposed rule for wellness programs, it is the perfect time to assess the health care challenges we face today and create the vision for the future we want. We must seize the opportunity to forge strong partnerships among business, government and society at large in order to achieve meaningful change for the health of Americans.

The EEOC must be cautious not to stifle progress. Rather, the role of government must be to enable positive change. In the case of wellness programs, increasing collaboration with business may lead to a healthier America and lower health care costs for all. I would say that’s achieving something great.

Bill Novelli is a professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He created and leads the Global Social Enterprise Initiative, which identifies, studies and promotes unique collaborations between governments, nonprofits and businesses to drive long-term social and economic change for the greater good.

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