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AARP Scores Federal Court Victory for Health-information Privacy

A federal court has ruled favorably for workers in an AARP suit against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that challenged recent workplace wellness rules that allow employers to penalize employees for keeping health information private. 


U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled that wellness rules were invalid because the EEOC failed to justify them.


“This is a tremendous victory for workers,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “No one should be coerced into revealing personal health information in the workplace under a wellness program.”


Last year, the EEOC changed its long-standing policy protecting individual workers from being pressured into revealing confidential medical and family health information to their employers. Over the protests of AARP and many other organizations, the EEOC issued regulations last year that make employees vulnerable to discrimination.


AARP said in the suit that workers exercising their federal civil rights to keep their medical and genetic data private could face penalties that would double or triple their health insurance costs—a fact that the court noted in its decision. AARP also argued that the EEOC failed to explain and justify its new policy and that the new rules are contrary to federal laws protecting personal health information. The court agreed.


Two major federal laws–the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)–generally forbid employers from asking employees about personal and family health information. This sensitive information can range from physical health issues such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease to mental disabilities such as depression and bipolar disorder. The ADA and GINA permit narrow exceptions to the nondisclosure rule for voluntary wellness programs, but those exceptions only apply when the workers genuinely volunteer their information.


The EEOC’s rules “seriously undermine” the critical protections ensured under the two laws, the AARP suit argued.


AARP has consistently opposed the EEOC’s efforts to change the workplace wellness rules, first by filing comments last year when the EEOC proposed the rule changes and then by suing to protect workers’ rights.


Judge Bates said in his ruling that it would be too “disruptive” to immediately eliminate the rules and instead gave the EEOC a chance to “address the rules’ failings in a timely manner.”


This article was adapted from information provided by AARP.