Senate EEOC hearing discusses employer wellness program rules and disability

In September, a hearing by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions to consider two nominations to be Commissioners on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a nomination for General Counsel for the Department of Education addressed the need for clear rules for employer-sponsored wellness programs and the empowerment and employment of disabled Americans.
At that hearing, the Committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) led off by encouraging the EEOC Commissioner nominees to create clear rules for employer-sponsored wellness programs. Section 4303 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) created employer-based wellness programs and section 10408 awarded grants to eligible employers to provide their employees with access to comprehensive workplace wellness programs.
According to Alexander, “[f]or the last seven years, Congress has been stuck in a partisan stalemate over health insurance—which is not the main issue we ought to be addressing. We should be focusing on the cost of health care, which has grown from consuming 9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2015, and a predicted 20 percent in 2025, according to [CMS] data.”
Alexander defined the workplace wellness program issue as follows: “Congress agreed when it passed the [ACA] by including a provision that allowed employers to discount health insurance premiums for healthy lifestyle choices like quitting smoking or maintaining a healthy cholesterol level. It was one of the few parts of the ACA that everybody agreed on. The Obama Administration sought to implement the provision through three different agencies, but the EEOC issued regulations that limited the ability of the Administration to do what Congress told it to do and reduced the discount employers could give for participation in a wellness program. Roughly 60 percent of insured Americans get their health insurance on the job, and one of the most straightforward ways to encourage wellness is to give those employers clear guidelines. As Commissioners, I hope you will create clear rules for employer-sponsored wellness programs.”
Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), asked the Commission nominees to give their point of view on finding paid work for the disabled, noting that in his Senate office he found that hiring the disabled was not only good for the disabled worker, but also for the overall moral of his office.
Mrs. Janet Dhillon, nominated to serve as Commissioner and Chair of the EEOC, agreed with Scott that it is important to integrate the disabled into the workforce. She stated her belief that the EEOC should use its “bully pulpit” to educate employers on hiring the disabled and that innovative approaches for hiring the disabled, advocated by the EEOC, should be encouraged.
The viewpoint of EEOC nominee, Dr. Daniel Gade, is well known. He is a decorated veteran who served in Iraq and lost a leg in action. He is a national expert on disability policy and the challenges facing disabled veterans and all disabled people in this country. He graduated from West Point in 1997 and returned to West Point as a professor in 2011. He holds a Masters and Ph.D. in public administration and policy from the University of Georgia. He served in the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush, was appointed to the National Council on Disability and has served on various advisory committees advising the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Dr. Gade testified that there is still significant disability discrimination in the workplace and that the EEOC can play a “critically important role” through educational outreach to employers and the disabled and by implementing workable wellness program requirements. Gade supports programs like Project Independence, which helps people with developmental disabilities find jobs, develop friendships, and live independently. While the EEOC does not oversee disability payments, it does oversee discrimination claims.

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