Legislating Wellness: Proposed Bills to Support Workplace Wellness Programs

As many legislative sessions kick off around the country, interest remains high amoist2_2906092-medical-notes.jpgng lawmakers to encourage businesses to institute wellness programs as a means of tackling increasing health care costs and improving the health of Americans.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), bills supporting wellness initiatives have been increasingly popular in the last couple of years.  In 2010, many bills related to wellness and prevention were proposed in state legislatures, including measures to allow insurance discounts, to implement wellness related tax credits, and to create wellness commissions or studies.  According to NCSL’s survey, as of July 2010, state legislatures had enacted approximately 20 wellness bills. 

Despite state budget concerns around the country – which may act to slow down legislative activity in other arenas – 2011 seems poised to become yet another “year of wellness.”  As just a sample of such proposed legislation, Hawaii lawmakers have introduced measures to create a workplace wellness pilot program (S.B. 1106) and to offer a tax credit for certain employers who offer their employees a qualified wellness program (H.B. 409; S.B. 800).  At the other end of the country, a  bill pending in New York would create an advisory committee on public wellness to assist health insurers and employers in establishing wellness programs for insured participants and employees (S.B. 1923).  In South Carolina, another proposed bill would, among other things, allow group health insurance policies or certificates of coverage to provide for wellness credits or discounts (S.B. 316).

State legislative activity to support wellness may stem, in part, from federal health care reform.  The Affordable Care Act includes a number of wellness and prevention provisions designed to boost the adoption of workplace wellness programs.  For example, beginning this year, businesses with fewer than 100 employees who work 25 hours or more a week will be eligible for grants to help implement new wellness programs.  To be eligible for funding from this $200,000,000 grant program, the workplace wellness program must be available to all employees and include health awareness initiatives, initiatives to change unhealthy behaviors and lifestyle choices, initiatives that foster a supportive environment, and mechanisms to encourage employee participation.

Although the Affordable Care Act has remained controversial on the whole, its support of business initiative in the area of wellness programs has been less so.  There is bipartisan support for wellness initiatives, with many of the state bills listed above sponsored by Republican lawmakers.  At the federal level, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has introduced the Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention America Act (S. 174), which emphasizes illness prevention, wellness, and health promotion.  Among other things, the bill would provide federal tax credits to businesses that offer comprehensive workplace wellness programs to their employees and allows employers to deduct the cost of employees’ athletic facility memberships.

Russell D. Chapman authored this entry.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.