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Penn State employees fight health care coverage changes that seek ‘private’ information

A growing online petition is calling for Penn State to change course on a plan to roll out new health care surcharges for its employees and a wellness program that critics say is an invasion of privacy.

More than 1,300 Penn State facility members and employees and others by Thursday afternoon had signed the petition started by Brian Curran, a professor of art history, on Change.org.

“I feel this is a dagger at the heart of my family,” Curran said of the plan, which calls for new fees for employees who use tobacco, who carry their spouses on their insurance and who won’t submit to a health survey and screening.

“I don’t want to share all my medical records,” he said.

Penn State announced the changes this summer in a press release, saying they were designed to “improve employee health and to curb the rapidly growing costs of health care for both employees and the university.”

The new plan would result in monthly surcharges of $100 for employees with spouses who have the option to elect health care coverage through their own employer but still choose to use the Penn State plan, and of $75 for those who use tobacco products.

But perhaps most controversial is a $100 monthly surcharge would be assessed to any employee who doesn’t agree to complete an online wellness profile and undergo a health screening.

Employees have expressed concern about answering intrusive questions asked by third party contractors, and not their family physicians, and providing medical information to those contractors, unsure of how the information will be used or shared.

Penn State officials said the program, called the Take Care of Your Health initiative, is modeled after an employee wellness program introduced eight years ago at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Officials said the changes “proved successful in significantly reducing the trajectory of health care costs.”

The university’s health care costs are expected to top $217 million in 2013-14, and the university said they are “projected to balloon further without significant intervention.”

“We are implementing a significant set of changes that will help us turn the tide on unmanageable increases in health care costs for our faculty and staff,” President Rodney Erickson said in a statement. “Higher eduction is at the crossroads with respect to our responsibilities for greater cost control, and now is the time for decisive action. I have challenged our leadership in human resources to hold annual health care cost increases to the Consumer Price Index plus 2 percent, a goal that will help us to sustain the existing quality of employee health care options while easing pressures on tuition increases that face our students and their families.”

Penn State officials have said the university won’t have access to individual health records obtained by the wellness program and won’t charge employees more based on individual health statuses.

But some employees have expressed concern that the new surcharge for tobacco usage would come from information gathered by the wellness survey. A Penn State spokeswoman did not respond to an inquiry Thursday.

Employees have also criticized the university for penalizing those who don’t participate in the wellness program, rather than rewarding those who do.

Penn State officials said they have offered voluntary wellness programming for more than a decade, but that participation was not enough to positively impact health care costs. The university now is taking a more aggressive approach.

“In order to have offered incentives rather than surcharges, the university would have had to inflate health care premiums artificially for all employees and then discount for those who participate,” the Penn State release said. “Those involved in drafting and implementing the plan felt it was important to be straightforward about how the costs will be assessed.”

The changes are proposed to go into effect Jan. 1.

But those behind the petition would like to see the university cancel or delay those plans.

Curran said Thursday he was amazed by the number of signatures the petition has received in the last week alone, when the number exploded from around 250 to more than 1,300.

“There is an incredible range and diversity of staff who have signed it — many are distinguished and renowned,” he said. “And it cuts across disciplines — everything from scientists to engineers to health management.”

Curran said non-tenure track staff will be perhaps the hardest hit, and they, too, are speaking out, despite having less security.

“For the other members of staff to come forward is meaningful,” he said.

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