Whatever happened to the days when privacy like silence was golden? They are long gone. Nowadays it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate against smokers, openly search online for employees who might be posting about their health issues to online forums, and ask for employees to sign waivers granting access to your and your dependent’s medical records, or to fill out health questionaire’s to determine health wise how much of a risk of cost you or your dependent’s are.
Believe it or not, all four of these things are happening now as we speak. Most of us don’t think anything about searching online and posting health questions or our own experiences or information to forums with others who have questions about the same health issues, but you should. Once you’ve disclosed personal information about your health or your dependent’s health, that information becomes part of the public domain, and is free game for employers or anyone else for that matter to access and use how they see fit.
Most of us are very happy with the laws designating that smokers cannot smoke in public places, except for bars (with Washington State even being an exception to that) including myself. I am the first to admit that second hand smoke is a very real danger, particularly for babies and children and because of this smokers need to take their habit outside. But what about not hiring someone because they are a smoker, is that ok? In Washington State they are doing just that. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has had a policy of not hiring smokers since 2002. Another company, Weyco in the state of Michigan took it a step farther, and fired employees who refused to quit smoking. Personally, I think this is going too far, it takes the whole idea of “Big Brother is watching you” to a whole new and very scary level, because basically these employers are saying “you cannot smoke in your own home.” While they do not come right out and verbalize that, it is what they are saying. While I do not have a problem with designating that employees not smoke on company property, I do think it is going too far to say that they must quit smoking all together in order to keep their job, or be hired. This is an invasion of privacy of the worst possible degree.
However, setting aside the issue that employers should not be able to discriminate against smokers, what about this new trend of employers having access to employee’s and their dependent’s medical records? While an employer cannot make it mandatory that you sign a waiver releasing your medical records or filling out questionaire’s regarding your health in order to get the job, once you are hired they apparently can ask you to do so. Also apparently if you or your spouse refuses to give access, or refuses to fill out health questionaires then the company can increase your deductible and or premiums as punishment. In a world of increasingly expensive health insurance costs, companies are looking for ways to decrease health related spending, but does that give them the right to invade employee’s and their dependent’s privacy? I don’t think so, while I am all for employer’s encouraging good health practices, providing aerobics classes, and having vending machines with healthy food choices, use of these programs and services should be voluntary and not contingent upon whether or not an employee or their dependent’s provide the company with personal health information.
But what about questionaire’s about your lifestyle choices and health? I feel that we run into the same problems here as with giving employers access to your health records. It is no one’s business but yours and your doctor’s what you eat, how much you weigh, whether or not you smoke, whether or not you’ve been treated for stress-related illnesses in the past, and or whether or not you excercise, how much you excercise, or how often. You are there to do a job, and as long as health issues do not prevent you from completing the tasks required to do your job successfully, then there is no reason that your company need have access to your health information.
The problem with companies making the release of health information, and participation in good health programs and or services mandatory in order to keep health costs down, is that it takes away your right to choose. That’s right, I think that you should have the choice of whether or not you excercise, whether or not you want to eat a candy bar at lunch instead of an apple, and whether or not you smoke. The whole idea of our country even coming into being was so that people would have the right to choose.
There are other problems that arise with the human resources departments of companies having access to personal medical information. One problem being that while people that work in human resources are trained to not divulge information they see in employee’s files, it is not a guarantee that they won’t. Do you really want the twenty-three-year-old clerk who does the filing for the human resources department to know that your husband takes Viagra or Cialis, that five years ago you were diagnosed and treated successfully for breast cancer, that you had a drinking problem at one time and were treated for it, or that you or a family member has been diagnosed as clinically depressed and is taking medication for the problem? You shouldn’t because this is no one’s business but yours and your doctor’s. However, were your company to insist upon your signing a waiver to release medical records to the company, or to fill out health related questionaire’s this is exactly the kind of information they’d have access to.
Despite the need for personal privacy there is another issue to be looked at here, and that is if employers can make it mandatory for you to be healthy, and to force you to get healthy in order to keep your health premiums and deductibles down, then how much longer will it be before the older, the disabled, or those who were born with or have developed health-related problems such as Asthma going to be discriminated against, and turned down for jobs because hiring them would mean a higher cost to the company.
Companies need to understand that while they have the right to keep costs down, they do not have the right to invade their employee’s and their dependent’s privacy in order to do so. It is wonderful to have programs such as aerobics classes, free health screening, quit smoking programs, and health assessment counselors available to help employees get healthier. In fact companies should be encouraged to provide these programs, but they should not be mandatory, nor should employee’s or their dependent’s be discriminated against with higher deductibles and premiums if they choose not to participate in the health programs offered by their companies. I think that companies will find if they make these programs and services available to employees, that most employees will take advantage of them. However if they make them mandatory they are just going to foster resentment and hostility from employees and their dependents who feel, and rightly so, that their personal privacy is being invaded.