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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • Minn. health incentives raise privacy concerns

  • University officials make clear the data are collected by a third party and come back to them only as an aggregate that makes it impossible to identify individuals.
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  • More Minnesota workers are considering financial incentives to participate in wellness programs that monitor their health, but those programs come at the sacrifice of some privacy.
    It's not uncommon for an employer to offer basic incentives, such as a discount for gym membership. But some organizations have begun taking further steps, asking for more specific information that leaves some participants a little uncomfortable, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report.
    For example, the University of Minnesota is offering at least a $300 discount on health insurance premiums next year. However, to qualify employees have to participate in activities such as a health-risk questionnaire, health coaching and a biometric screening to measure blood pressure and cholesterol.
    More than 5,700 employees are participating, including Amy Smith, an administrative assistant for the University of Minnesota Press
    She said she was excited about the opportunity to save money and also have structure for her weight-loss efforts, but having to answer detailed questions and undergo health screening could feel "a little creepy."
    "I think that if I were not already enthusiastic about taking care of myself, I might not feel as positive about the program," she said.
    The university used to offer employees $65 in cash to complete a few activities. Starting this year, the university added activities and increased the reward. Employees get the health premium discount by earning 300 points. The online health questionnaire earns 100 points, commuting by bike is worth 75, and setting a fitness goal like running a marathon can earn 50 points.
    The university, which is self-insured, is urging workers to participate because the program helps save on health care costs. Dann Chapman, the university's employee benefits director, said he thinks participation will rise dramatically next year as more people find out about the opportunity.
    "As that word gets out and people are realizing what a difference that can make, more people are paying attention and saying, 'how come I didn't know about this?'" Chapman said.
    The university covers 38,000 employees and dependents. Some have raised concern about privacy, although university officials make clear the data are collected by a third party and come back to them only as an aggregate that makes it impossible to identify individuals.
    Still, Andrea Lorek Strauss wondered why an employer should have access to personal health information that should remain confidential with one's health provider.
    "What do they need that information for? What do they need to know my cholesterol rating for in order to know I'm doing a good job?" said Lorek Strauss, a U of M extension educator in Rochester. "Now if it were correlated with my health provider, that feels a little more connected to me."
    Asking questions about how employers will use data is smart, said Deven McGraw, who directs the Health Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., But she added that employers have an incentive to protect privacy — if they don't, workers would be less inclined to respond to questionnaires or give honest answers.
    Page 2 of 2 - "That actually means it's in their best interests to make strong commitments to their employees not to use the data for any purpose that involves their employment," McGraw said.
    She recommends that workers ask their companies for more information about who is collecting and analyzing the information. Data collected by a health provider are subject to patient privacy laws, while information collected by an employer is protected by law only if it involves a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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