Arnold Ahlert / April 13, 2017

Sacrificing Privacy for Health Care

As health care has become a “right,” more companies are beginning to monitor their employees’ well-being.

“Wellness programs are perhaps the most common way for employers to gain access to their workers’ intimate data. These programs have flourished over the last few years, after a clause in the Affordable Care Act raised the limit on how much companies could offer in incentives.” —

Is health care a personal or collective responsibility? The passage of ObamaCare by Democrats, absent a single Republican vote, indicates exactly where the Left stands on the issue. Regardless of one’s sex, age or other factors, ObamaCare contains a list of “essential benefits” that include, e.g., pediatric care, mental health/substance abuse services, and maternity care. This makes it clear Americans are supposed to subsidize each other’s health care needs. Yet making Americans pay for services they will never need, coupled with paltry fines for healthy Americans who refused to sign up at all, is exactly why premiums have skyrocketed, and ObamaCare remains in a death spiral.

There is little doubt Democrats’ “we’re all in this together” approach resonates with some, especially those who believe health care is a right (it is not), and who see a single-payer system as the ultimate solution to our problem. What they don’t see is a government-controlled, collectivist nightmare emerging from a system where Americans will be hectored to maintain a certain level of fitness and health. Moreover, government will have access to increasing amounts of personal data to determine one’s success or failure.

Thus, one kowtows to “health police” demands — or else.

Such demands are the basis of company-sponsored “wellness programs.” A 2013 RAND study revealed more half of all organizations with 50 or more employees — the ObamaCare threshold whereby employers are required to provide health insurance to their full-time workers or pay a tax penalty — had wellness programs. A Willis Towers Watson survey revealed one-third of them offered “Fitbits” or other wellness trackers to their employees, a percentage expected to increase to 50% by next year. Marketing group ABI Research estimates 202 million wearable devices were given out by companies in 2016. By 2021, they expect that total to top 500,000.

Right now such programs are voluntary. But as Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, peer pressure from one’s fellow employees, coupled with pressure from one’s boss, makes resistance extremely difficult. “If everyone says, ‘Hey, you should be doing this,’ it’s no more voluntary than ‘Hey everyone else is contributing to XYZ charity,’ or ‘Hey we’re all putting in a thousand dollars in so-and-so’s political action committee,’” he explained.

How intrusive are these trackers? A GOP-controlled Congress is advancing the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act that would allow employers to force their workers to surrender DNA test results to their firms. The bill weakens provisions of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, allowing employers to raise employee health insurance premiums by as much as 30% if they refuse to join a workplace wellness program. “If enacted, this bill would force Americans to choose between access to affordable health care and keeping their personal genetic and health information private,” said Derek Scholes, PhD, director of science policy at the American Society of Human Genetics. “Employers would be able to coerce employees into providing their genetic and health information and that of their families, even their children.”

It gets worse. When employee Dale Arnold opted out of Wisconsin plastics maker Flambeau’s company-sponsored health assessment and biometric screening, Flambeau took away his insurance coverage. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on Arnold’s behalf, contending the program failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act that limits companies from requiring medical exams or personal health information from workers. Last December, a federal judge in Madison, Wisconsin, ruled in favor of the company, insisting the details of coverage didn’t violate ADA provisions as long as the data obtained from a wellness program is used to determine overall employee health coverage.

Thus the privacy of an individual worker must be sacrificed to the “greater good” of his employer.

Unfortunately, wellness tracking devices are only part of the worker surveillance equation. Boston-based company Humanyze has taken MIT-developed technology “and turned it into special badges that hang around your neck on a lanyard,” the Washington Post reported last September. “Each has two microphones doing real-time voice analysis, and each comes with sensors that follow where you are in the office, with motion detectors to record how much you move. The beacons tracking your movements are omitted from bathroom locations, to give you some privacy.”

“Within three or four years, every single ID badge is going to have these sensors,” predicted Humanyze chief executive Ben Waber. “We are only scratching the surface right now.”

Workers are supposed to take comfort from the idea these badges don’t actually record what they say, only the quality of the conversation, including how often workers interrupt each other, relative voice volume, and mood. And despite assurances companies could only analyze such data in aggregate, workers themselves were able to access individual activity records. “You basically get a link and you go to a website,” explained “human capital” consultant Jeff Moir. “The dashboard would give you indicators like conversation quality, your activity, who did you talk to, where were you.”

Moir rationalizes the effort as one that allows companies to quantify quality workers. “I would say this is something that is coming,” he said. “This kind of technology is part of an overall trend … monitoring is high and it’s going to get a whole lot higher.”

Not monitoring. Surveillance.

And not just at work. Former Intermex employee Myrna Arias discovered the app her boss, John Stubits, required her to run non-stop on her company-issued iPhone, tracked her 24/7. When she removed it, she was fired. Arias filed suit in Kern County Superior Court. In her filing, she noted that Stubits “admitted that employees would be monitored while off duty and bragged that he knew how fast she was driving at specific moments ever since she installed the app on her phone.” Arias rightly likened the app “to a prisoner’s ankle bracelet and informed Stubits that his actions were illegal. Stubits replied that she should tolerate the illegal intrusion…”

The case was settled out of court.

The end destination of the collectivist approach to health care is clear: When Americans are forced to surrender more and more personal information as a condition for preserving their jobs and health insurance, privacy is on the verge of extinction.

The GOP should make ending employee data collection one of the top priorities in any health care reform bill they put forth. Unfortunately they appear just as focused as Democrats on fixing the problems of insurance companies rather than restoring the doctor-patient relationship those insurance companies, in collaboration with large companies, continually undermine.

No one should have to endure surveillance in exchange for decent health care. If the right to privacy can be enshrined by the Supreme Court for aborting a baby, it should certainly apply to the collection of Americans’ personal data.

Advancing technology and political incrementalism are a highly combustible mix. One we must address before our republic is “burned” beyond recognition.

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