Penn State health care task force finds data hard to access

A task force convened to study health care options for Penn State ran into roadblocks trying to access data it needed to do its job, the group’s leader said this week.

Penn State professor Keith Crocker, who headed the task force, delivered a report Tuesday to the Faculty Senate, saying the group couldn’t get access to university-owned health insurance information that is stored by its vendor, Highmark.

“The problem is Highmark is not set up to answer these questions in a timely manner,” Crocker said. “They were not being obstructive; this is simply not what they do. We found accessing our own data, in a timely fashion, is about as difficult as accessing it if it were on Pluto.”

Crocker recommended to the Faculty Senate that the university find a way to make the data easier to retrieve, compare and analyze. He said that there are “a number of paths the university could take,” including putting together a data warehouse, something he said the University of Michigan has done.

“Data availability remains a serious concern,” he said.

Penn State formed the task force in November after criticism of a wellness program rolled out over the summer that asked employees to complete new requirements, such as an online health profile, or face a $100 monthly surcharge. Penn State later dropped the surcharge and instead offered an incentive to employees who voluntarily participated in the plan.

But opposition to other parts of the program remained, including new charges for smokers ($75) and for employees’ spouses ($100) who were eligible for insurance through their own employers.

The task force spent the past six months researching alternative approaches to reduce health care costs at Penn State and improve the health of its employees.

The report made recommendations for further investigation, such as data availability, but didn’t call for action.

One senator criticized the report Tuesday for not plotting a clear enough path forward, while others praised the work the task force did in a short amount of time.

“I would love to be standing in front of you with a checklist,” Crocker said. “... We don’t have the answers.”

The task force report, which was released this week, stated that its goal was not to make specific policy recommendations, but instead to “provide a rigorous evaluation of the alternatives that will be of use to decision-makers.”

The Faculty Senate had previously voted to suspend penalties for noncompliance with the wellness initiative, and asked for the additional surcharge for spousal coverage to be suspended.

It also requested a task force be formed to evaluate health care expenses, engage faculty and staff in a dialogue, and update the full senate by its last regular meeting.

“Although the genesis of the task force was the most recent controversy over the wellness initiative, the Penn State community clearly needs to take a serious look at the value received for its health care expenditures,” the task force wrote in the report. “Between 2005 and 2013, the costs to Penn State of health care rose by 72.2 percent while the centrally allocated raise pool increased only by 24.5 percent.”