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Raising the Price of a Pack of Cigarettes

November 18, 2007
by Reece Hirsch
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Employer health and wellness program are growing in popularity for obvious reasons. Employers are seeking a way to manage the high cost of health benefits and curbing unhealthy employee behaviors, such as smoking, is perceived as one way to achieve that goal. But the trend also raises some looming privacy issues.

As reported in a November 13 Washington Post article, a Hewitt survey released in April noted that two-thirds of 450 major employers surveyed were moving towards wellness and disease management programs for employees. Clarian Health, an Indianapolis-based hospital system, attracted media attention with a particularly aggressive proposal. Clarian proposed that employees with a high body-mass index (a fatness indicator measured by a person’s weight relative to height) would receive deductions from their paychecks. Clarian later backtracked on that proposal, but it demonstrates where this trend may be headed.

In this environment, employers are also beginning to provide employees with personal health record programs, which employees may use to store their medical information in a centralized online repository. As was recently noted at a session at the IAPP Privacy Academy in San Francisco, the information gathered in PHRs would be valuable in implementing employer health and wellness programs.

For example, an employee might keep records of their smoking and dietary habits in a PHR. Whether the employee wants their employer to have that information is another matter. How and whether employers access and utilize that PHR data will raise inevitable privacy issues.

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