Your DNA and medical info aren't the business of your employer or the government

With the advent of a new GOP controlled Congress and White House we were expecting an avalanche of new legislation (and executive actions) as the Republicans sought to get out to a running start. It’s important to get all you can done in the first year since the toxic atmosphere of the midterm elections will begin slowing any progress before you know it. But even for conservatives, this means it’s more important than ever to keep an eye on the raft of bills suddenly springing up and watching out for dangerous signs of overreach. One example of that appears to have cropped up in a new proposal which would give employers greatly expanded access to the medical information, even going so far as mandatory DNA testing results, of workers who hope to have health coverage. (New York Times)

A bill in Congress could make it harder for workers to keep employers from getting access to their personal medical and genetic information and raise the financial penalties for those who opt out of workplace wellness programs.

House Republicans are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier for companies to gather genetic data from workers and their families, including their children, when they collect it as part of a voluntary wellness program.

The bill, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act, introduced by Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina and the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, would also significantly increase the financial costs faced by someone who does not join a company wellness program.

Having finished reading through some of the early available details, there’s no other way to put it. This is insane. The sponsors of the bill have a fairly easy sales job unfortunately because the stated premise is to lower health insurance premiums. After years of the disastrous effects of Obamacare, who doesn’t want that? But this idea isn’t simply a bridge too far… it’s too far by a country mile.

The topic under discussion revolves around a very common practice in employer provided health coverage wherein employees can qualify for lower premiums by meeting certain “healthy” criteria. The idea behind it is that those engaging in the healthiest lifestyle practices are likely to be the ones requiring the least medical care and thereby should qualify to pay less into the overall system. It’s a lovely theory, but it’s also fraught with all manner of problems.

One of the easiest ones to pick on is the issue of people who smoke tobacco products versus those who do not. There remains absolutely no question in this day and age that heavy smokers suffer a host of medical problems not experienced by many (though not all) of the rest of the population. But even in the case of this seeming no-brainer we run into complications. It’s easy enough to say that someone putting away two packs of Marlboros a day should pay a bit more, but what about the guy who enjoys one cigar per week while he’s out golfing? How about the person who lives in a home where there are other smokers and picks up enough nicotine from the environment to fail a screening test? As you can see, it gets complicated fairly quickly.

How about the subject of “healthy weight” which can be even more subjective? Different people have different metabolisms and some will be able to carry more or less weight comfortably than others. Will your employer be monitoring whether you eat at Burger King or the Vegan Palace? When you begin drawing that line you are immediately generating problems for people on either side of it who come close. But this new legislation goes much further. What about simply having a propensity for certain diseases? These are the sorts of things which show up in DNA testing such as the popular programs offered by outfits like 23 and Me. Are we seriously going to allow employers to force workers to submit their entire DNA profile or force them to pay a severely jacked up health insurance premium rate?

Your medical information is private for a reason. Removing that privacy should only be done with the greatest caution and restraint under the supervision of the courts. Turning things over wholesale to your insurance provider, even with some flimsy assurance that it will remain private and never be released to your employer (don’t make me laugh) is an unwarranted intrusion. There is little difference between an idea like this and having the private medical information of citizens turned over wholesale to the government. This is a bad idea and it should be abandoned.

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