Penn State Faculty Senate debates wellness plan as university defends steps taken

mdawson@centredaily.comSeptember 10, 2013 

— Under Penn State’s new employee wellness program, a health risk assessment questionnaire asks female employees if they plan to get pregnant in the next year.

If the employee doesn’t want to disclose that and opts out of completing the assessment, she’ll incur a $100 fee each month. That’s $1,200 over the course of the year.

That requirement is a fragment of the debate that’s growing over the university’s controversial new wellness plan, which would require employees to complete the risk assessment assessment as well as a biometric screening and make a pledge they’ll get a preventative-care exam or be hit with the fine. The plan also calls for a $100 charge to spouses who use Penn State’s health insurance if they are eligible for their own as well as a $75 charge to employees who smoke.

The debate took on a new shape Tuesday, as professors met with the administrators and insurance folks behind the wellness plan in their first face-to-face meeting since a postcard this summer alerted people to the changes. But the message from Old Main is still the same — that the program is not going away, because it’s forecast to save the university tens of millions of dollars during a time of severe fiscal challenges.

“I think that our financial challenges are so substantial,” said David Gray, the senior vice president for finance and business, “that if we don’t get on top of this challenge now, each and every year we will compound the solution to this very deep and seemingly intractable problem.”

At the meeting, professors grilled Gray and human resources administrator Susan Basso, and they made clear their dissatisfaction with answers they’ve gotten from officials so far. The faculty members’ remarks centered on whether the plan is too invasive by requiring them to provide medical information on the health risk assessment to a third party company, WebMD, and whether the information in databases will be vulnerable to online hackers.

Gray and Basso, along with the Highmark representatives, promised the information would be safe because they are bound by federal privacy rules to assure that. Further, they said, the information will not be given to anyone, such as Penn State itself or a third party, such as an advertising or marketing company.

For Old Main, the hourlong session provided little resolution, thought it gave hard evidence that the issue remains far from being settled. In addition, it showed several movements against it are picking up steam.

For one, the Faculty Senate voted Tuesday to convene a special meeting in the next few weeks to discuss a possible formal request to the university for a moratorium on the wellness program’s rollout.

Another group, Penn State’s newly formed chapter of the American Association of University Professors, is working on drafting an employee bill of rights, and the members are planning a rally at noon Sept. 26 on campus, though a precise location and speakers hadn’t been set yet.

The wellness plan was adopted because of the “alarming” increases in costs for Penn State to provide health insurance to its 17,000-plus benefits-eligible employees, Gray said. The increase was in the ballpark of 10 percent, but administrators hope the initiative will lower that number to a 5 percent jump.

Gray said the forecast is for savings of $63 million over the next five years. Without the wellness program, Penn State would spend more than that, he said.

The plan will take effect Jan. 1. Employees have until Oct. 8 to complete the screening, wellness profile and pledge to see a doctor for a preventative exam.

Despite the contention Tuesday, the wellness plan has been received positively by many employees, Basso said.

As of Monday, 10,100 people had completed the biometric screening; 8,306 completed the online wellness profile; and 7,452 employees provided the promise they’d see a doctor.

And Basso said she’s heard from employees who learned they had an affliction, such as Type 2 diabetes — something they otherwise would not have known if they weren’t required to get the biometric screening done.

Gray said Penn State’s adoption of a wellness program may seem unique now, but he predicted it’d be commonplace among colleges and universities across the country in a couple years. Basso said Ohio State University and the University of Virginia are rolling out similar programs.

The point about disclosing on the health risk assessment a planned pregnancy was raised by Maria Truglio, an associate professor of Italian in the College of Liberal Arts.

“Is it appropriate that women who refuse to disclose their reproductive plans are fined $100 a month?” said Truglio, whose remark was followed by applause and cheers.

Kim Blockett, an associate English professor at the Brandywine campus, said that kind of information doesn’t belong with an insurance company.

“For me, discussing my reproductive plans with an unknown entity at an insurance company does not constitute ‘private,’ ” she said. “Certainly, I understand the health benefits and the necessity of having that conversation, as part of a larger context, with my physician. That makes sense to me, not my insurance company.”

Mike Fiaschetti, president of Highmark’s commercial health business, said the questions on the health risk assessment are a way to understand what an employee faces and will be used to develop a plan.

“That information, by the way, is completely and utterly private,” Fiaschetti said. “We have never ... given that information, in the 15 years we’ve done health risk assessments, to an employer.”

Gray and Basso made a promise, too: that they’d be open about the process. They even conceded that the rollout wasn’t communicated effectively.

“I am absolutely willing to take full responsibility for what is deemed by many of you a lack of proper communication,” said Basso, noting that she didn’t have much time because she was tasked with cutting health care costs in November and the renewal with Highmark on Jan. 1.

“We did what we could, and there is no way that I can communicate with 17,000 benefits-enrolled individuals,” Basso said, adding that she met with committees of faculty and staff to share the information. “It was my expectation that that was being broadly communicated with the appropriate constituencies that they represent.”

Gray was disappointed that the employees are still not satisfied with the answers they’ve been given. He said he thinks they’ve offered as much information as they can about the online system protecting the information as they can without jeopardizing the security system itself.

“Quite frankly, I’m dismayed we have not been able to get that message across in a way that allays those concerns,” Gray said at the news conference. “I don’t know what more we can say that hasn’t already been said.”

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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