Benefits & Compensation News

Penn State’s wellness program under fire: But is it really that bad?

As you may have heard, Penn State University is caught in a firestorm of controversy over what some members of its faculty have labeled an “incredibly invasive” wellness program. But taking it at face value, it really doesn’t seem to be all that bad.

Here’s the situation: Out of its total operating budget of $4.4 billion, Penn State is projecting it’ll spend $217 million this academic year to offer health insurance to faculty and staff members — that’s $17.7 million more than it spent on health coverage last year.

So as you can see, the university’s faced with a problem all too familiar to many employers: rapidly rising health insurance costs.

In response, Penn State has launched a wellness program called Take Care of Your Health. Those who fail to participate — and fail to get their covered spouses to participate — will be charged an additional $100 in premiums per month.

Is it asking for too much?

Now you can start to see where the program might draw some ire from faculty. After all, a $1,200 non-participation penalty is pretty steep.

But compared to what we’ve seen from other employers, it doesn’t appear as though Penn State is asking that much from employees in order to avoid the penalty.

Penn State’s asking plan participants to do three things to avoid the $1,200 penalty:

  • complete a 12-page health questionnaire created by WebMD (must be completed by employee & spouse/same-sex domestic partner)
  • agree to undergo a preventive physical within the coming year (employee & spouse/same-sex domestic partner), and
  • undergo a biometric screening (employee only), which will include a cholesterol and glucose check, and measurements of height, weight and waist circumference.

Penn State’s even going to enter those who complete these three steps into a raffle for a chance to win one of six $500 prizes.

Where’s the hate coming from?

If you listen to two members of Penn State’s faculty, however, the university’s desire to collect in-depth health information is unethical and an invasion of privacy — and the program as a whole may actually increase costs.

Art-history Professor Brian Curran, launched an online petition calling for the program to be canceled. And so far it has collected more than 2,000 signatures, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Associate Professor of Political Science Matthew Woessner wrote a letter on a faculty website and a column in a local newspaper calling for employees to offer the university pushback on the wellness program.

Both professors have called the data-collection effort coercive.

Now, we must admit, the questions the WebMD questionnaire asks are very in-depth and personal, and would likely make anyone a little uncomfortable.

Some of the things it asks about include:

  • feelings of sadness or guilt
  • problems with friends, family or supervisors
  • whether women conduct regular breast exams, and
  • if men perform regular testicular exams.

There’s no denying that’s very personal info. But isn’t it likely the administrator of the university’s self-insured plan already has loads more health-related, sensitive data on employees’ health than the questionnaire can produce?

And if so, doesn’t that make the program — at least on its face — not that much more “invasive” or intense than what other employers are rolling out?

After all, many employers opt to penalize employees who fail to meet certain health requirements, like losing weight, lowering their blood pressure or lowering their cholesterol. And the only penalty Penn State is imposing for failing to meet a health requirement is a $75 per month tobacco surcharge for every plan participant who smokes — exactly the type of penalty the Obama Administration gave the green light to in the Affordable Care Act.

So it appears the university’s main goal — at least for the moment — is to simply try to collect health data on its employee population.

And courts have already made it clear that health-risk assessments like the one Penn State is asking employees to complete are perfectly legal, even if workers are penalized for not completing them — as long as the employer won’t have access to individual employee results, only aggregated totals.

The problem, however, is even though the courts are saying these kinds of programs and penalties are OK, there is one big downside to them: Employees don’t like feeling bullied into performing health-related activities.

So the challenge for employers is to try to find a way to sell these programs to their health plan participants — one area in which it’s fair to say Penn State clearly failed.

Will it increase costs?

The second argument the professors make is that the wellness program will actually increase initial costs — by making every employee get expensive screenings — without any evidence it’ll lead to savings down the road.

But Penn State isn’t asking employees to go to their regular physician to get all of their required testing. At least for the biometric screenings, it’s asking staffers to go to the mobile vans the university has hired — at what is probably considerably less cost than a regular physician would charge for the same screenings.

Where’s the beef?

Considering all that’s before us, it seems the stance the professors — and 2,000 petition-signees — have taken in regards to Penn State’s wellness initiative is a bit harsh.

Yes, it’s natural to be upset to be faced with paying more for health insurance — but that’s the reality of today’s healthcare environment.

It appears unfair to think Penn State’s trying to pick on its employees or coerce them into giving up personal info.

If you’re going to criticize the university for anything, it should be for the way it marketed the wellness program. Clearly, the university failed to capture much support from its workforce for the initiative.

Another path it could’ve taken: Rather than positioning the $1,200 layout as a penalty, it could’ve increased premiums for every employee by $1,200 and offered a $1,200 discount for those who complete the WebMD questionnaire and screenings.

But that path is not without its potential consequences either — as that could easily be viewed as trying to “pull one over” on employees.

In fact, Penn State acknowledged it could’ve restructured the program and marketed it as an award instead of a penalty, but it said that approach wasn’t “fiscally responsible.”

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  • Joe Employee

    Christian, your article has at least two factual mistakes.

    1. “But Penn State isn’t asking employees to go to their regular physician to get their physicals. It’s asking staffers to go to the mobile vans the university has hired — at what is probably considerable less cost than a regular physician would charge.”

    In fact, the wellness program has three parts.

    A. WebMD questionnaire

    B. Biometric screening (offered on campus).

    C. Promising to get a routine physical exam from the employee’s regular physician within the coming year.

    2. “After all, many employers opt to penalize employees who fail to meet certain health requirements, like losing weight or quitting smoking. But Penn State isn’t doing that here — it’s simply trying to collect health data on its employee population.”

    In fact, part of the wellness program is a requirement that every employee declare (annually) whether they smoke or not. Smokers will be fined $75 per month.

    Many of us fear that a BMI surcharge will soon be added. Or an alcohol surcharge.