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    One Insurance Company Is Betting Big on Customers Giving Up Personal Health-Tracking Data

    As people increasingly use personal fitness devices, such as Fitbits, or health-tracking apps, such as Strava, there has been increasing concern about individual medical privacy as the data is gathered and used, sometimes for purposes of which runners or cyclists were unaware. People have questioned where this data collection could lead.

    Recently, U.S. life insurance giant John Hancock announced one path for fitness tracking: To cut life insurance rates. Beginning next year, John Hancock, in partnership with Vitality Group, “will stop underwriting traditional life insurance and instead sell only interactive policies that track fitness and health data through wearable devices and smartphones,” Reuters reported. “Policyholders score premium discounts for hitting exercise targets tracked on wearable devices such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch and get gift cards for retail stores and other perks by logging their workouts and healthy food purchases in an app.”

    Currently, John Hancock’s program is voluntary and there are numerous other life insurance companies that offer traditional policies, which do not involve constantly tracking individuals’ health and fitness information through wearable devices. But how soon will this change, to where more and more people are pressured to give up such personal data, such daily information, in order to have policies to protect their families? 

    Such questions have been raised in the context of corporate wellness programs and genetic data. Last year, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) has introduced H.R. 1313, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act, which would allow employers to penalize workers who do not provide their private genetic information (as well as the personal genetic data of their families) as part of the wellness programs. The Washington Post reported the bill, “would allow employers to impose penalties of up to 30 percent of the total cost of the employee’s health insurance on those who choose to keep such information private.”

    The New York Times noted that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has pursued cases against employers that it says used wellness programs to discriminate against workers. The new bill, the Times reported, would “weaken the role of the E.E.O.C. in overseeing wellness programs and its ability to prevent violations of antidiscrimination laws established under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.”

    And life insurance companies for years have been gathering data on and creating individualized information profiles on customers. “Life insurers are testing an intensely personal new use for the vast dossiers of data being amassed about Americans: predicting people’s longevity. … Today, however, data-gathering companies have such extensive files on most U.S. consumers—online shopping details, catalog purchases, magazine subscriptions, leisure activities and information from social-networking sites—that some insurers are exploring whether data can reveal nearly as much about a person as a lab analysis of their bodily fluids,” the Wall Street Journal reported eight years ago.

    John Hancock is one insurance company. But its announcement raises the question: Will this lead to insurance firms dividing individuals into “profitable” and “unprofitable” groups, where the always-tracked and proved-healthy customers are given discounts while then untracked and unproved must accept rate hikes to keep the same coverage? There are many unknowns when individuals are tracked.

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