Craig Lovelace for Business First

Kathleen Herath has advice for companies crafting a wellness program for employees: “Always make sure the lawyers are present.”

Sounds ominous, but Herath, who oversees wellness efforts at Nationwide Insurance, said a lot goes into customizing programs to meet the needs of workers but not run afoul of the law.

“If you … put it together in a mindful manner, it is much easier to maintain,” said Herath, associate vice president of health and productivity.

Five years ago, Nationwide revamped its wellness program and developed MyHealth for its employees across the country. It always had elements of a wellness plan – such as smoking cessation, nutritional and exercise programs – but Herath said it was never a coordinated effort.

Nationwide assembled a diverse team to develop a plan that was legal and worthy of the company’s investment, she said.

“They (attorneys) don’t have that broad-based approach,” Herath said. “You need a very well-rounded group.”

Big Brother knows you smoke

Corporate wellness efforts continue to grow as companies grab at any way to curb medical and insurance premium expenses. Coordinated programs can lead to a decrease in costs, but hovering around those plans are questions about fairness, discrimination and employee privacy.

Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. made national headlines in 2006 when, to control spiraling health-care costs, it forbade tobacco use by employees even on their own time.

Scotts was sued on an invasion of privacy claim by an employee in Massachusetts who was fired after a test found nicotine in his blood. A federal judge tossed out the case last year saying the worker never kept his habit secret. The employee’s lawyer planned to appeal.

Federal rules for health records, privacy and anti-discrimination generally prohibit wellness programs from basing health-insurance rates, incentives or rewards on age, ability or health factors.

For example, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prohibits group health plans from charging employees different health premiums or deductibles based on a health factor unless a wellness program provides a reward that is based on an employee’s participation.

With wellness plans, employees often worry about privacy and security. How is the information going to be used? Who is going to see it?

Nationwide attorney Mark Storts said when the company set up MyHealth, employee privacy was a primary concern. “This program has run really well because we protected their privacy by building a firewall between accessibility (to an individual’s data) and the viewer.”

“There is a Big Brother component to it initially,” said Bill Frankel, vice president of wellness for Be Well Solutions in Beachwood, which helped set up and manage the wellness program for Schottenstein Zox & Dunn Co. LPA. “There are employees who say, ‘It’s no business of my employer that I smoke.’ ”

The Columbus-based law firm spent several months defining its wellness program and launched it in March.

Frankel and Denise Herald, Schottenstein’s human resources coordinator, said educating employees on a plan’s scope is essential for their buy-in, as is an assurance their data will not be misused.

“We stressed that is was completely private,” Herald said.

Frankel said Be Well, founded in 2005, hasn’t encountered challenges to the programs it has developed for clients, although he acknowledges there are always some disgruntled employees.

But like the Scotts employee who was fired for smoking, those who object to elements of wellness programs might have a tough time prevailing in court.

What some may describe as Scotts’ hard line – Frankel calls the company’s wellness program “quite tough” – is gaining traction.

The Association of Corporate Counsel reports more companies are seeking advice about how to develop aggressive policies – using incentives and rewards as carrots – that are aimed at changing the unhealthy ways of their employees. The counsel warns, however, that such policies could invite challenges.

A healthy bottom line

Scotts did not respond to an interview request for this article, but spokesman Jim King told CNN in July that before the company went smokeless, 30 percent of its 8,000 employees lit up. Since the ban, that percentage has dropped to 7.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show the cost employers incur because of an unhealthy work force and why many are turning to wellness programs, where the return on investment generally runs between $2.10 and $10. From the view private instagram without human verification Centers:

Nearly $162 billion of expenses were incurred in 2009 as the indirect results of cardiovascular diseases and strokes – $39 billion in lost productivity because of sickness or disability and $122.5 billion due to premature death.

Obesity-related health-care expenses totaled an estimated $147 billion in 2008.

Employers provide insurance for more than 61 percent of the nation’s people 65 years old or younger.

Employees contribute nearly $700 annually toward single-coverage insurance and more than $3,200 for family coverage.

The numbers are pushing more companies to establish wellness plans.

“Health-care costs are annually rising at two times the rate of inflation. That is not sustainable,” Frankel said.