Many employers view wellness programs as a way to lower health care costs and promote healthy behavior. With the growth of workplace wellness programs, new guidance from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is timely. HHS/OCR recently issued guidance in the form of frequently asked questions about HIPAA and workplace wellness programs.
The applicability of HIPAA to a workplace wellness program depends on how the program is structured. An employer may sponsor its own wellness program or offer it through the employer’s group health plan. When a workplace wellness program is offered as part of a group health plan, individually identifiable health information collected from wellness program participants is protected under HIPAA because the group health plan is a covered entity under HIPAA. However, a workplace wellness program that is not offered as part of a group health plan but is offered by an employer directly is not covered by HIPAA since HIPAA applies only to covered entities and business associates, but not to employers in their capacity as employers. However, other federal and state laws may apply to the collection and/or use of information by an employer that directly offers a workplace wellness program.
The guidance also addresses whether a group health plan may allow an employer as plan sponsor access to protected health information about participants in a wellness program offered through the plan. If the employer does not administer the health plan, the group health plan can disclose to the employer as plan sponsor only information on which individuals are participating in the health plan and summary health information if requested for the purposes of modifying the plan or obtaining premium bids for coverage.
The guidance states that the group health plan can provide an employer that is a plan sponsor and performs administrative functions on behalf of the group health plan with access to protected health information necessary to perform its plan administrative functions, but only if certain conditions are met. These conditions, which the employer as plan sponsor must include in plan documents and certify agreement to, include the following:
- There must be adequate separation between employees who perform plan administrative functions and those who do not;
- Protected health information cannot be used or disclosed for employment-related actions or other prohibited purposes under the privacy rule; and
- There must be reasonable and appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect any electronic protected health information.
As employers and group health plans begin developing and implementing workplace wellness programs this year, they should review OCR’s recent guidance to ensure that they are in compliance with HIPAA.