United States Department of Labor

Wellness Programs

On June 3, 2013, the Departments issued final regulations regarding nondiscriminatory wellness programs in group health coverage under PHS Act section 2705 and the related provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Code. The final regulations increase the maximum permissible reward under a health-contingent wellness program offered in connection with a group health plan (and any related health insurance coverage) from 20 percent to 30 percent of the cost of coverage, and further increase the maximum permissible reward to 50 percent for wellness programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use. The final regulations also address the reasonable design of health-contingent wellness programs and the reasonable alternatives that must be offered in order to avoid prohibited discrimination. In the preamble to the final regulations, the Departments stated that they anticipated issuing future subregulatory guidance as necessary. The following FAQs address several issues that have been raised since the publication of the final regulations.

Q1: A group health plan charges participants a tobacco premium surcharge but also provides an opportunity to avoid the surcharge if, at the time of enrollment or annual re-enrollment, the participant agrees to participate in (and subsequently completes within the plan year) a tobacco cessation educational program. A participant who is a tobacco user initially declines the opportunity to participate in the tobacco cessation program, but joins in the middle of the plan year. Is the plan required to provide the opportunity to avoid the surcharge or provide another reward to the individual for that plan year?

No. If a participant is provided a reasonable opportunity to enroll in the tobacco cessation program at the beginning of the plan year and qualify for the reward (i.e., avoiding the tobacco premium surcharge) under the program, the plan is not required (but is permitted) to provide another opportunity to avoid the tobacco premium surcharge until renewal or reenrollment for coverage for the next plan year. Nothing, however, prevents a plan or issuer from allowing rewards (including pro-rated rewards) for mid-year enrollment in a wellness program for that plan year.

Q2: A plan participant’s doctor advises that an outcome-based wellness program’s standard for obtaining a reward is medically inappropriate for the plan participant. The doctor suggests a weight reduction program (an activity-only program) instead. Does the plan have a say in which one?

Yes. The plan must provide a reward for individuals who qualify by satisfying a reasonable alternative standard. If an individual’s personal physician states that the outcome-based wellness program is not medically appropriate for that individual and recommends a weight reduction program (an activity-only program) instead, the plan must provide a reasonable alternative standard that accommodates the recommendations of the individual’s personal physician with regard to medical appropriateness. Many different weight reduction programs may be reasonable for this purpose, and a participant should discuss different options with the plan.

Q3: Paragraph (f)(6) of the final regulations provides sample language that may be used to satisfy the requirement to provide notice of the availability of a reasonable alternative standard. Are plans and issuers permitted to modify this language?

Yes. The final regulations state that the sample language provided in paragraph (f)(6), or substantially similar language, can be used to satisfy the notice requirement. Plans and issuers may modify the sample language to reflect the details of their wellness programs, provided that the notice includes all of the required content described in paragraphs (f)(3)(v) or (f)(4)(v), as applicable, of the final regulations. Additional sample language is available in examples illustrating the final regulations’ requirements for outcome-based wellness programs.