Biometric screenings and health risk appraisals (HRAs) are often the gateway to any workplace wellness program. For the individual, they offer a snapshot of current health status, providing a benchmark for establishing health goals and measuring progress. For the employer, aggregate data can offer a bird’s eye view of the overall health and wellness of the work force population.

Biometric screenings and HRAs are frequently the mechanism employers use as basic requirement to trigger participatory wellness incentives. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) allows employers to provide wellness incentives to employees, such as a reduction in the employee’s monthly premium or contribution and a reduction on the plan’s annual deductible. These incentives can equal as much as 30% of health care premiums – and up to 50% for smokers. However, many employers have been slow to adopt incentives while waiting for rulings from the EEOC. At the beginning of the year, EEOC gave preliminary approval to such wellness incentives.

More recently, employers has another endorsement to incentives in a legal ruling in the case of EEOC v. Orion Energy Systems, Inc. In that case, the court upheld the employer requirement for employees to participate in biometric screenings as eligibility for financial wellness incentives. In this particular case, the incentive (100%) was higher than would be allowed in the EEOC’s current guidance on incentives (30%), but the principle that screenings were allowed if voluntary was upheld. See District Court Decision Upholds Employer’s Wellness Program But Signals Support for EEOC Positions Going Forward for more detail on the case.

What are biometric screenings?

Biometric screenings are tests that measure key health indicators. They may vary in what they encompass but generally would measure such things as height, weight, cholesterol levels, body mass (BMI), glucose (sugar) levels, blood pressure, and waist circumference.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) and the Care Continuum Alliance offer more information on Biometric Health Screening for Employers (PDF), including this definition:

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines biometric screening as the measurement of physical characteristics such as height, weight, BMI, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood glucose, and aerobic fitness that can be taken at the worksite and used as part of a workplace health assessment to benchmark and evaluate changes in employee health status over time.

Biometric screenings are voluntary: no one may be forced to take them. However, they may be a requirement for eligibility in incentive programs.

Employers may offer multiple ways for an employer to have biometric screenings. Some larger employers may offer on-site screenings; others may allow employers to have screenings at their own physician or at a designated physician; other employers offer self-administered testing kits that would be sent to a lab for analysis.

Results of the screenings are shared with the employee. The results would generally identify risk factors, or areas that would fall outside of a normal range for others in the same age/sex group, along with educational information and potential ways to mitigate the risk through diet, exercise, stress management, coaching and other methods. In short, it’s a health snapshot for that particular point and time in space and can serve as jumping-off point for making health improvements in areas that were identified as individual health risks.

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