Workplace Discrimination at Issue for Diabetics
People with diabetes must rely on a complicated set of laws and conflicting court cases to challenge discrimination in the workplace, while employers also struggle "with confusion about whether diabetes is a legitimate disability and with concerns about whether it is overly expensive, hazardous and disruptive to accommodate the illness," the New York Times reports. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, says complaints related to workplace diabetes discrimination are increasing and account for 5% of the 15,000 complaints made under the act annually.
Federal law does not specify any illness or handicap as a disability but requires people to demonstrate that a "major life activity," like walking or vision, is "substantially limited." According to the Times, the "restrictions of diabetes are often invisible," leaving workers with diabetes "teetering on a balance beam, needing to prove they are disabled enough to fit under the law but not so impaired that they can't do a job."
A large number of people with diabetes work in jobs "uninvolved in matters of life and death," and a "reasonable accommodation," such as allowing workers with diabetes to eat at their desks or excusing them from fluctuating shifts, "can make the difference in whether they can function," the Times reports.
However, businesses can be hesitant or unwilling to hire people with diabetes because of the high cost of health care coverage, safety issues related to dizziness or fainting caused by hypoglycemia and the belief that the concessions necessary for people with diabetes to function normally could breed resentment among other employees, the Times reports. In addition, courts "are of scant help in bringing clarity" to diabetes discrimination cases because judges "in nearly identical cases have ruled in completely opposite ways" and lawyers can be reluctant to pursue such cases because discrimination can be difficult to prove, the Times reports (Kleinfield, New York Times, 12/26/06).
An Asheville, N.C. program that gives municipal workers with diabetes no-cost medicines and supplies if they agree to monthly counseling from specially trained pharmacists has helped participants better manage their disease, the New York Times reports. According to city officials, the decade-old program has saved more than $2,000 in medical costs per patient annually.
Barry Bunting -- pharmacy director at Mission Hospitals, which runs the program -- said that for every dollar spent on medicine and counseling, the city saves $4 by preventing emergency department visits, dialysis, amputations or other complications related to diabetes. After three years of enrollment, participants' risk of going blind or needing dialysis or amputation was reduced by half, Bunting said.
In addition, during the first five years of the program, enrollees took an average of six sick days annually, half the number taken in previous years, the Times reports.
A 2003 study of the program found that after one year, half of the participants had their blood sugar under control and that after three years, two thirds had their blood sugar under control.
Diabetes drug manufacturers GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Aventis have jointly given about $1 million over the past five years to the American Pharmacists Association Foundation to help promote and replicate the program in other areas. About 40 other employers nationwide have adopted some form of the program (Urbina, New York Times, 12/30).