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Respect legal and privacy boundaries when setting up obesity programs

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Employers seeking to address obesity at work should take care not to violate discrimination laws or employee privacy rights.

“You have to be careful and not incentivize people for having the outcomes-based type of program without offering a reasonable alternative standard,” said Paula Andersen, Cincinnati-based director of the national clinical practice at Buck Consultants at Xerox.

That means employers should substitute alternative health targets for employees unable to meet the typical goals set by the employer.

For example, Omaha, Nebraska-based ConAgra Foods Inc. allows employees to qualify for lower health insurance premiums and a contribution to their health savings account by meeting four out of five of the company's health targets for body mass index, cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose and tobacco usage, said Charlie Salter, the company's vice president of human resources.

But since not all workers can reach the targets, Mr. Salter said alternative goals may be set by a worker's personal physician. “We wouldn't want somebody to feel defeated,” he said.

Additionally, when collecting and tracking employee health information, employers can protect themselves from privacy violations by using a third-party provider to manage employee health data, said LuAnn Heinen, Washington-based vice president at the National Business Group on Health.

Finally, employers should be wary of overstepping boundaries when it comes to telling employees how to lose weight and make lifestyle changes, said Obesity Action Coalition Chairman Ted Kyle.

“I don't think your employer should try to be your doctor at the end of the day,” Mr. Kyle said. Instead, the most effective step an employer can take is supporting a “culture of health where health itself is valued and the workplace is designed in such a way that promotes rather that interferes with health.”