CVS employees face $600 fine unless they disclose their weight

The drug chain plans to hit employees with an extra $50 per month for insurance unless they undergo screenings that assess body fat and weight. Privacy advocates are howling. UPDATE.

A new policy at CVS requires employees to get a screening which reports body fat, weight, and glucose levels to the company’s insurer. If employees don’t get screened, they have to pay an extra $50 per month, or $600 annually, in penalties.

That’s got privacy advocates upset, the Boston Herald reports.

“This is an incredibly coercive and invasive thing to ask employees to do,” Dr. Deborah Peel, founder of Patient Privacy Rights, told the Herald.

A CVS spokesman said the employees’ personal health information isn’t available to bosses. The program is designed to help employees manage their health costs, he said.

UPDATE: CVS launched a multi-pronged communications effort Thursday in response to the media attention the policy has received. The push included a blog post, a letter from the company’s chief human resources officer, a video featuring the chief medical officer, and a sidebar explaining the benefits of health screenings. The key message of the package is that CVS instituted the policy to help employees improve their health.

Is the policy OK? And is CVS doing a good job of communicating it? Communicators offered their opinions.

The benefits

The policy is, as Peel said, coercive and invasive, says Shel Holtz of Holtz Communications + Technology. It’s also useful.

“Everybody complains about the high price of medical coverage,” he says. “It seems to me that CVS is trying to do something about it. Plus, employees get a free wellness screening.”

Employees have gotten used to other kinds of testing, such as drug testing, or getting a full physical to obtain better life insurance benefits, Holtz says. Identifying risk will help keep health insurance premiums down, he says, which is ultimately good for employees.

D. Mark Schumann of Re-communicate adds that, although CVS won’t be collecting personal information, it can aggregate data to develop programs to make its workers healthier.

The larger issue

CVS isn’t alone in this, Schumann points out.

“I have been in many discussions with HR and benefit managers of major companies who struggle with the same questions,” he says. “How do we motivate our people to take better care of themselves? And what meaningful support can we provide so our people can become healthier versions of who they are today?”

Financial incentives, or what detractors of CVS’s policy are calling penalties, are a way to get employees to help provide information that can help with those efforts, he says.

Communication strategies

Even with those benefits in mind, health is always a sensitive, personal issue, Schumann observes. Companies that institute policies similar to CVS’s initiative have to find middle ground between what the company wants and what employees feel comfortable with.

Organizations must tell “a corporate story in a personal manner that respects employee choice,” he says.

Robert Holland of Holland Communication Solutions says he can’t really criticize CVS nor comment on its communication strategy, given that the memo announcing the program isn’t publicly available. However, he did offer some general suggestions based on the spokesman’s comments.

“I think they’re right to focus on the reasons why they’re taking this action,” he says. “It’s important for employees to understand the realities facing companies that are trying to control the rising cost of health benefits. It’s also important for companies to communicate clearly to employees what they can do to help keep those costs under control.”

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