New EEOC Lawsuit Challenges Orion Energy Systems Employee Benefit Program Under ADA


Employers using or considering using health risk assessments or other wellness programs should carefully monitor a new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit, EEOC v. Orion Energy Systems, Civil Action 1:14-cv-01019 (E.D.Wis.), which is the first time the EEOC has sued an employer under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) based on the employer’s wellness program.

Although the alleged facts in Orion reflect its practices might be much more aggressive than in common use by most employers, the principles argued by the EEOC in  Orion raise potential concerns for the growing number of employers relying on health risk assessment and other wellness programs to help manage health benefit costs, employee disabilities, and other concerns.

According the Kaiser Family Foundation, health risk assessments and other wellness program use is increasingly common.  The majority of employers reportedly now offer some sort of wellness program — 94 percent of employers with over 200 workers, and 63 percent of smaller ones.

Employers that use these arrangements generally believe their health risk assessment or other wellness benefit passes legal muster as long as it complies with standards established in final regulations amending the nondiscrimination requirements of the Health Insurance Portability Act (HIPAA). The sponsors of these arrangements often are unaware of or discount the likelihood that the EEOC might view these and other wellness benefit arrangements as violating the ADA prohibitions against medical inquiries that are not both job related and necessary to the job or other ADA disability discrimination prohibitions.

In Orion, the EEOC contends that Orion instituted a wellness program that required medical examinations and made disability-related inquiries.  When employee Wendy Schobert declined to participate in the program, Orion shifted responsibility for payment of the entire premium for her employee health benefits from Orion to Schobert. Shortly thereafter, Orion fired Schobert.

The EEOC charges Orion violated federal law by requiring an employee to submit to medical exams and inquiries that were not job-related and consistent with business necessity as part of a so-called “wellness program,” which the EEOC charges was not voluntary, and then by firing the employee when she objected to the program.

The EEOC maintains that Orion’s wellness program violated the ADA as applied to Schobert.  Additionally, EEOC also charges Orion wrongfully retaliated against Schobert because of her good-faith objections to the wellness program. The EEOC further asserts that Orion interfered with Schobert’s exercise of her federally protected right to not be subjected to unlawful medical exams and disability-related inquiries.

“Employers certainly may have voluntary wellness programs — there’s no dispute about that — and many see such programs as a positive development,” said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC Chicago district. “But they have to actually be voluntary. They can’t compel participation by imposing enormous penalties such as shifting 100 percent of the premium cost for health benefits onto the back of the employee or by just firing the employee who chooses not to participate. Having to choose between responding to medical exams and inquiries — which are not job-related — in a wellness program, on the one hand, or being fired, on the other hand, is no choice at all.”

The Orion litigation reminds businesses of the advisability or properly designing and managing wellness programs to comply with applicable legal requirements.

Financial or other incentive and reward programs of course must be designed to comply with HIPAA’s nondiscrimination rules, the ADA and privacy rules.   Privacy requirements also can be a challenge under these laws unless information collected from screening and other wellness and disease management activities is carefully collected, routed and handled to comply with HIPAA, GINA and other privacy rules.  See, e.g,   EBSA Issues Guidance on Health PLan Wellness & Disease Management Programs Subject to HIPAA Nondiscrimination RulesADAAA Amendment Broader “Disability Definition Not Retroactive, Employer Action Needed To Manage Post 1/1/2009 RisksBusinesses Face Rising Disability Discrimination Enforcement Risks; EEOC Finalizes Updates To Disability Regulations In Response to ADA Amendments Act.

Employers and health plans also should review the existing preventive care coverage provided in their health plans to ensure compliance with expanded federal mandates enacted as part of the sweeping new federal health care reform law. See e.g., Affordable Care To Require Health Plans Cover Contraception & Other Women’s Health Procedures.

If you need assistance addressing the legal requirements of your wellness program or other workforce, employee benefit, compensation or risk management concern, contact the author of this update.  We also encourage you and others to help develop real meaningful improvements by joining Project COPE: Coalition for Patient Empowerment here by sharing ideas, tools and other solutions and other resources. TheCoalition For Responsible Health Care Policy provides a resource that concerned Americans can use to share, monitor and discuss the Health Care Reform law and other health care, insurance and related laws, regulations, policies and practices and options for promoting access to quality, affordable healthcare through the design, administration and enforcement of these regulations.You also can access information about how you can arrange for training on “Building Your Family’s Health Care Toolkit,”  using the “PlayForLife” resources to organize low cost wellness programs in your workplace, school, church or other communities, and other process improvement, compliance and other training and other resources for health care providers, employers, health plans, community leaders and others here.

About Author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

If you need help reviewing or updating your health benefit program for compliance with ACA or other laws or with any other employment, employee benefit, compensation or internal controls matter, please contact the author of this article, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A 2011 inductee to the American College of Employee Benefits Council, immediate past-Chair and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPPT Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Arrangements, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative, the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plan Committee Vice Chair, former ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group Chair, past Southwest Benefits Association Board Member, Employee Benefit News Editorial Advisory Board Member, and a widely published speaker and author,  Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising businesses, plans, fiduciaries, insurers. plan administrators and other services providers,  and governments on health care, retirement, employment, insurance, and tax program design, administration, defense and policy.   Nationally and internationally known for her creative and highly pragmatic knowledge and work on health benefit and insurance programs, Ms. Stamer’s  experience includes extensive involvement in advising and representing these and other clients on ACA and other health care legislation, regulation, enforcement and administration.

Widely published on health benefit and other related matters, Ms. Stamer’s insights and articles have been published by the HealthLeaders, Modern Health Care, Managed Care Executive, the Bureau of National Affairs, Aspen Publishers, Business Insurance, Employee Benefit News, the Wall Street Journal, the American Bar Association, Aspen Publishers, World At Work, Spencer Publications, SHRM, the International Foundation, Solutions Law Press and many others.

For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see www.CynthiaStamer.com.

About Project COPE: The Coalition On Patient Empowerment & Its  Coalition on Responsible Health Policy

Sharing and promoting the use of practical practices, tools, information and ideas that patients and their families, health care providers, employers, health plans, communities and policymakers can share and offer to help patients, their families and others in their care communities to understand and work together to better help the patients, their family and their professional and private care community plan for and manage these  needs is the purpose of Project COPE.

The best opportunity to improve access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans is for every American, and every employer, insurer, and community organization to seize the opportunity to be good Samaritans.  The government, health care providers, insurers and community organizations can help by providing education and resources to make understanding and dealing with the realities of illness, disability or aging easier for a patient and their family, the affected employers and others. At the end of the day, however, caring for people requires the human touch.  Americans can best improve health care by not waiting for someone else to step up:  Speak up, step up and help bridge the gap when you or your organization can do so by extending yourself a little bit.  Speak up to help communicate and facilitate when you can.  Building health care neighborhoods filled with good neighbors throughout the community is the key.

The outcome of this latest health care reform push is only a small part of a continuing process.  Whether or not the Affordable Care Act makes financing care better or worse, the same challenges exist.  The real meaning of the enacted reforms will be determined largely by the shaping and implementation of regulations and enforcement actions which generally are conducted outside the public eye.  Americans individually and collectively clearly should monitor and continue to provide input through this critical time to help shape constructive rather than obstructive policy. Regardless of how the policy ultimately evolves, however, Americans, American businesses, and American communities still will need to roll up their sleeves and work to deal with the realities of dealing with ill, aging and disabled people and their families.  While the reimbursement and coverage map will change and new government mandates will confine providers, payers and patients, the practical needs and challenges of patients and families will be the same and confusion about the new configuration will create new challenges as patients, providers and payers work through the changes.

For Added Information and Other Resources

If you found this update of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing some of the other updates and publications authored by Ms. Stamer available including:

For Help Or More Information

If you need assistance in auditing or assessing, updating or defending your organization’s compliance, risk manage or other  internal controls practices or actions, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469)767-8872.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 24 years of work helping employers and other management; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. Her experience includes extensive work helping employers implement, audit, manage and defend union-management relations, wage and hour, discrimination and other labor and employment laws, privacy and data security, internal investigation and discipline and other workforce and internal controls policies, procedures and actions.  The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on management, reengineering, investigations, human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and risk management, federal sentencing guideline and other enforcement resolution actions, and related matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters.Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see hereor contact Ms. Stamer directly.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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