by Htun Lin
The media has been awash with articles on U.S. government surveillance since the bombshell revelations by National Security Agency analyst Edward J. Snowden of Big Brother data mining of citizens’ phones and internet use. The legal framework for wholesale surveillance, created by the Patriot Act, was fully sanctioned by the U.S. Congress and a special post-9/11 “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” Court.
The data mining by large U.S. corporations gets less attention. It goes beyond the tracking of every mouse-click, purchase and “like” registered by every consumer on the internet, and relies not only on sophisticated electronic devices, but on the currency of fear and sheer intimidation which would make a Big Brother tyrant proud, the kind depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
SHAPE UP OR PAY UP
The April 6 Wall Street Journal reported in “Shape Up or Pay Up: Firms Put in New Health Penalties” that six in ten major Fortune 500 companies, like Michelin, plan to mandate compliance by individual workers. Or else: “Are you a man with a waistline measuring 40 inches or more? If you want to work at Michelin North America Inc., that spare tire could cost you.” The article continues: “Employees at the tire maker who have high blood pressure or certain size waistlines may have to pay as much as $1,000 more for healthcare coverage starting next year.”
Where I work at a major HMO, there is a campaign sponsored to encourage us healthcare workers to do just that. At first glance, it’s a no-brainer. Who’d not want to march along with a “get healthy” campaign, especially if one works at an HMO?
THE SINISTER SIDE OF PENALTIES
Besides, it is a voluntary program, laced with lots of fun incentives like free glucose monitors, pedometers, and lunchtime guided walks around the lake. We can keep track of our (and each other’s) progress on the company “Wellness” website. Our union reps even helped pass out glossy color brochures and Wellness Visa Cards to accumulate health credit scores.
But what began as “voluntary” wellness programs based on incentives has revealed a sinister side of penalties. Pharmacy chain CVS sparked outrage when it asked its workers to report personal health metrics, including their body fat, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, to the company’s insurer by May or pay a $600 penalty.
Mohawk Industries gloated that participation in its health risk assessment program shot up to 97% after the company imposed a $100 monthly penalty on non-participants. The company complained that participation in its previous incentives rewards program was low. Honeywell, too, reported a spike in participation after it switched from an incentive to a penalty program, charging workers $1,000, deducted from their health savings account, for transgressions like getting a hip or knee replacement without consulting company doctors.
BACKDOOR WAGE CUTS
The penalties in these wellness incentive programs are essentially a backdoor form of wage cuts. With corporate spending on healthcare expected to reach an average of $12,136 per employee this year, according to a study by the consulting firm Towers Watson, penalties may soon be the new norm. This points to a future in which chronic conditions such as hypertension could cost workers their jobs, or prevent them from being hired in the first place. Medical ethics and policy analysts say practices like not hiring smokers are motivated not by employers’ concerns for employees’ health, but to keep smokers off their health bill.
Industry analysts say many companies want to move from not hiring smokers to also excluding job applicants with obesity, hypertension, and other pre-existing health conditions.
Wellness becomes a slippery slope of legal discrimination and corporate intrusion. Individual privacy of health information will be a thing of the past when seeking employment in a fully corporatized world.
These programs snoop into workers’ health records in order to give employers control over the private lives of workers. Michelin’s chief of Human Resources claimed that the old incentive programs “didn’t lead to meaningful change.” He wants to see the kind of sea change afforded by a campaign of fear and intimidation to advance corporate Big Brother, like post-9/11 security directives that enabled government to encroach on ever more aspects of private lives.