Tag Archives: business necessity

Inoculating Your Wellness Program Against the EEOC

Two months ago, a posting appeared in this column titled: Are Obamacare Wellness Programs Soon to be Outlawed? Truthfully, that headline was picked for its sky-is-falling value, treating one EEOC lawsuit against one wacky wellness program as a risk for wellness programs everywhere.

As luck would have it, the sky just fell yesterday — right on the head of Honeywell — and the EEOC is indicating more lawsuits are to come.

The scary part: Unlike the wacky wellness program described in the column two months ago, Honeywell was in compliance with the Affordable Care Act. Compliance with the ACA doesn’t seem to get you a free pass on the EEOC’s own “business necessity” requirement. Essentially, the Honeywell lawsuit means no company doing invasive biometric screenings and mandating doctor visits or measuring health outcomes is immune to prosecution, even if it is in compliance with ACA.

The even scarier part: The EEOC is correct that, as this column has noted for almost two years now, wellness programs mandating overscreening and annual checkups have no business necessity. In fact, these “employer playing doctor” programs can harm employees, because:

  • A workplace screen can find heart attacks… but at the cost of a million dollars apiece, when emotionally draining false positives and potentially hazardous overtreatment are taken into account;
  • The Journal of the American Medical Association recommends against mandatory checkups;
  • An embargoed, peer-reviewed article that will be published soon in a major journal concludes that the costs and unintended health hazards of weight control programs generally overwhelm the benefits.

Companies could still claim business necessity if, indeed, these programs save money despite the harm to employees. (OSHA might raise issues, but those are hypothetical whereas EEOC is an elephant in the room.) And a few of you might ask: “Didn’t Seth Serxner of Optum and Ron Goetzel of Truven just write a journal article and show a webinar saying: ‘The overwhelming majority of published studies show positive results’?”

Unfortunately, those “positive results” — as is well-known to the presenters, who, after all, have access to the Internet — fail any sniff test.

These two true believers continue to cite Professor Katherine Baicker even though she has stepped back three times from her old (2009) conclusion that wellness provided a significant return on investment (ROI), including a “no comment” to ITL’s own Paul Carroll. More recently, she has, with great justification, blamed overzealous readers for selectively interpreting her findings. Goetzel also continues to cite the state of Nebraska, which his committee gave an award to as a “best practice” despite the revelations that the state’s vendor lied about saving the lives of cancer victims and that the vendor also paid off his award committee with a sponsorship. Likewise, Goetzel’s misinterpretation of a RAND study has drawn a rebuke from the author of the study, in a coming letter to the editor. [Editor’s Note: ITL emailed a link to this article to the press offices at both Truven and Optum on Oct. 30 offering them a chance to respond to the author’s allegations. Both were told that they could either comment at length in this article or could write separate articles that would lay out their position and that ITL would publish. Neither company has yet responded.]

Clearly, the EEOC is on to something about a lack of business necessity, when even the alleged best-and-brightest wellness defenders are forced to rely on misstatements and half-truths. Not to mention selective omissions — the presentation’s extensive section on “critics” had no mention of me, despite a recent cover story citing me as the field’s leading critic, because both these two presenters know my math is irrefutable. These industry defenders also have spotty memories, as when they claim that it is valid to compare the performance of active, willing participants against a control group of unmotivated non-participants and dropouts — forgetting that they gave out a Koop Award to one of their sponsors who showed exactly the reverse.

Inoculating Your Programs

A problem with the EEOC does not have to happen to you or your clients (if you are a broker). Taking three steps — the first of which is free and the second of which costs only in the four figures — essentially guarantees that you will not end up on the hot seat with Honeywell.

First, sign and adhere to the Workplace Wellness Code of Conduct.  This will allow you and any clients to focus your own efforts on avoiding employee harm and creating a framework for business necessity. This document is provided gratis for ITL readers, from the author.

Second, employers who sign this and get at least one vendor/carrier to sign and implement its counterpart, the Workplace Wellness Vendor Code of Conduct, can have their own outcomes validated by the GE-Intel Validation Institute (itself the subject of a forthcoming ITL posting), to create an audit trail that, in fact, outcomes are being measured.

Third, I personally — along with colleagues — will do an in-depth  walkthrough to see if, indeed, your wellness program complies with U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines. If not, we will provide a list of next steps to get into compliance.

The inoculation? A six-figure guarantee that you (or your client, if you’re a broker) will not be the subject of a successful EEOC lawsuit. Besides providing some protection on its own, this level of financial commitment may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your actions will be a pretty convincing piece of evidence that business necessity and employee health are the goals, as measured by an objective and qualified third party.

Yes, I know it’s not always about me; you can protect yourself in other ways. My ex was quite clear on the subject of whether it’s always about me.

However, in this case, my ex would seem to be wrong. It appears that every screening vendor, every alleged wellness expert and most of those in large benefits consulting firms have done just the opposite of what I’m suggesting: They have proposed massive wellness programs with hefty financial incentives or penalties that get companies into fine messes like Honeywell’s. But, in case I’m wrong, I welcome names, websites and contact information of other consultants taking the same approach that I am. Please note them in the comments boxes below.  All will be published.

Baseline Testing: Book End Solution – Does It Qualify as Business Necessity?

Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 which included the terms “job-related and consistent with business necessity” in Section 703(k) of Title VII as part of a Congressional compromise. The amendment to the act which went into effect in 2008 did not affect the business necessity provision.

Case law regarding business necessity is very limited; however, a recent case in point is Atkins v. Salazar, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 25238 (5th Cir., Dec. 12, 2011), in which the Fifth Circuit issued an instructive opinion analyzing the business necessity defense in the context of diabetes.

The Fifth Circuit described the business necessity standard as follows:

For a qualification to be “job-related,” “the employer must demonstrate that the qualification standard is necessary and related to 'the specific skills and physical requirements of the sought-after position.'” Similarly, for a qualification standard to be “consistent with business necessity,” the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs.

The court further noted, based on an earlier ruling, that it must “take into account the magnitude of possible harm as well as the probability of occurrence … the probability of the occurrence is discounted by the magnitude of its consequences.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, not only must a medical exam be job-related, it must also be consistent with business necessity. This means that the medical exam must relate to the essential functions of the job. The medical exam must test the ability to perform the primary functions of the job. For example, if you are a cashier at a grocery store, the essential functions of your job would be to ring people up and help them bag their items. Any medical exam your employer required would have to be related to how you perform those functions in order to be consistent with business necessity. It is important to note that as long as the medical exam evaluates some function of the job, it should satisfy the elements of business necessity.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer may have the ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examination. After the applicant is given a conditional job offer, but before starting work, an employer may make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations, regardless of whether they are related to the job, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same job category (post-offer). After employment has commenced, an employer may make disability-related inquiries and require medical examinations only if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all medical information obtained during such inquiries or testing be treated as confidential medical information. While this provision covers all employees, only disability-related inquiries and medical examinations are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act's restrictions. A disability-related inquiry is defined as asking questions or testing that is designed to elicit information about a person's disability. Therefore, questions or testing that is not designed to ask or evaluate information about an individual's disability are not prohibited under the ADA.

A medical test as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual's physical or mental impairments or health. Factors that determine if it is a medical test include:

  • whether the test is administered by a health care professional;
  • whether the test is interpreted by a health care professional;
  • whether the test is designed to reveal an impairment or physical or mental health;
  • whether the test is invasive;
  • whether the test measures an employee's performance of a task or measures his/her physiological responses to performing the task;
  • whether the test normally is given in a medical setting; and,
  • whether medical equipment is used.

The topic of medical testing, especially functional testing, is a controversial subject. In the fall of 2009 two major case precedents brought to light these very issues — Indergard vs. Georgia Pacific and the class action lawsuit brought against Sears. On September 29, 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a record-setting consent decree resolving a class lawsuit against Sears, Roebuck and Co. under the Americans with Disabilities Act for $6.2 million.

These recent rulings bear out that the Functional Capacity Evaluation (FCE) may be a medical exam. Even when classified as medical evaluations, Functional Capacity Evaluations don't physically correlate with true physiological function. The issue becomes whether or not these tests are able to accurately or objectively test for functionality. These rulings illustrate that Functional Capacity Evaluations that contain validity measurements that are subjective observations, do not correlate with effort and are not consistent with affected body parts are not legally defensible.

As we have seen with the Indergad and Sears cases, courts are examining these issues closely and unless there is an objective assessment, the employer or carrier is left virtually unprotected. For ADA compliance, the testing needs to be repeatable, objective, and address functionality.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer may not require a current employee to undergo a medical examination unless the examination “is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d) (4) (A). This section applies to all employees, whether or not they are disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Indergard decision clearly demonstrates the need for an objective measure of performance that must conform with business necessity.

In addition, recent case law — EEOC vs. Celadon Trucking — illustrates that if an individual does not meet the essential functions of the job, an employer needs to enter into the interactive process for the position for which they were applying or for any other open position for which the candidate is qualified.

Given all the legal mandates for the ADA and EEOC, coupled with state workers' compensation laws and Federal Mandatory reporting issues for work-related injuries, why do post-offer pre-placement tests? A better solution is baseline testing or a book end solution.

The Americans with Disabilities Act regulates testing that has the potential to evaluate a disability. So if a baseline test is non-invasive, captures the essential functions of the job with not only a reliable validity measurement but with an objective assessment of the muskuloskeltal system and is not read at the time of testing, it is not only acceptable under ADA but technically outside the scope. Why? Data is not evaluated at the time of the baseline test so no disability is identified and no medical questions are asked. It can be done at post-offer or with existing employees.

The book end solution is completed when there is a work-related incident, another test is performed under the workers' compensation pending case, and the results are compared. In the work-related case, the medical evaluation post loss test is allowed and not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Appropriate releases are signed prior to conducting the baseline testing, and the data is kept confidential. If no work-related injury occurs, the baseline data is never interpreted.

In summary, according to the Fifth Circuit ruling in the Atkins case, for a qualification standard to be “consistent with business necessity,” the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs. The business needs in the case of baseline tests are to provide better and faster treatment for the injured worker and to accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment.