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Anisa Arsenault
Associate Editor

Can Your Company Track Your Pregnancy Plans?

Employers have more access to health information than ever. Just how personal does it get?
PUBLISHED ON 02/22/2016

You’ve decided you’re ready to start trying for a baby, and recently opted out of refilling your birth control prescription. You’re not telling anyone, let alone your coworkers. But if you’re on your company’s health insurance, is there a chance they could find out anyway?

That’s the invasive issue brought to light in an article published by the Wall Street Journal. The piece highlighted third-party firms hired by companies looking for ways to curb healthcare costs. And readers deduced that bosses could be sent alerts when their employees made a significant—and potentially costly–health change. After taking a closer look at the issue, Vox assures readers that’s not actually the case. Here’s what’s really going on:

Any alerts being sent out by the third-party services would be going to the employee, not the employer. And these alerts are intended to be helpful, sending out info like tips for choosing an OB once a woman goes off birth control. Of course, the algorithm can guess wrong, and an employee can opt out of these notifications.

Sounds a little bit like Big Brother is watching, but overwhelmingly well-intentioned. But the real benefits are for employers. Federal health privacy laws prevent companies from seeing an individual employee’s data (although they’ll receive an aggregated report of employee health information). But by using a third party to collect data, assess health risks and send out messages pointing employees to particular health care options, companies can lower their long-term healthcare costs.

Jim Rivas, senior director of corporate communications at one of these third-party firms, Castlight Action, explains that an employee’s privacy is always protected.

“Employers that use our system never, under any circumstance, see individual employee data,” he says, adding that the employer only sees the number at people at risk for conditions. And that number will never be distributed if it’s smaller than 40, so it’s difficult—but perhaps not that difficult—to guess who may have the condition, such as pregnancy.

Yes, pregnancy discrimination laws are supposed to protect you from being let go or mistreated just because you’re expecting. But this is still an announcement you want to make on your terms, in your own time. Hopefully in this growing, gray area of data mining, privacy remains protected.

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