Penn State

Penn State drops $100 monthly surcharge in controversial new wellness program

The bell and Old Main on the Penn State campus on Saturday, June 23, 2012.
The bell and Old Main on the Penn State campus on Saturday, June 23, 2012. CDT file

Penn State is ditching the highly criticized $100 monthly surcharge component of its new but controversial wellness plan, meaning that university employees who don’t want to participate because of privacy or other concerns will not be penalized.

The plan consists of a biometric screening, completing an online wellness profile to the website WebMD and promising to see a doctor for a preventive medical exam, and employees were given a deadline of Oct. 8 to complete the requirements.

But Old Main and the Human Resources Office met fierce resistance to the plan after it was announced this summer, and the outrage came to a head at last week’s University Faculty Senate meeting, when professors grilled university officials and insurance representatives over the plan and called for a delay in adopting it.

“We have decided to suspend the $100 per month surcharge so that people who are uncomfortable with any aspect of the survey will not feel as if they are being penalized,” President Rodney Erickson said in a statement late Tuesday.

“What we are hearing is that there has not been enough time to discuss and digest this initiative. It’s clear that the interactions we have had up to this point have not been sufficient, and this is a genuine attempt on our part to ensure appropriate input and consultation has been sought from members of our faculty and staff.”

Administrators also promised to work with faculty and staff to form a task force that will study alternatives for implementing the wellness program.

The wellness plan was intended to help slow the university’s rapidly rising health care costs, with one official saying the wellness plan and other changes were projected to save Penn State almost $63 million over the next five years.

Faculty and staff decried it as invasive for requiring them to share information with the university’s insurance provider that they say belongs only with their private doctors, and they worry their medical information, stored online, could be vulnerable to hackers.

In addition, many employees have come to the defense of their lower-paid colleagues, saying that those who earn less can’t afford to take the $100-a-month hit to the paycheck and that they had no choice other than to participate despite concerns.

And at last week’s Faculty Senate meeting, one professor took issue with a question on the wellness survey that asked if female employees planned to become pregnant in the next year.

The concerns must have resonated. Provost Nick Jones and Vice President David Gray shared their plan to drop the surcharge with the University Faculty Senate Council during a meeting Tuesday, senate Chairman Brent Yarnal said.

The plan was greeted with a “positive response” from the council, which consists of the leaders of the Faculty Senate.

“The senate leadership is very pleased that the administration is actively working with the senate to resolve faculty concerns with the ‘Take Care of Your Health’ initiative while addressing the university’s need to reduce health care costs,” Yarnal said. “This collaboration is an important step forward in shared governance at Penn State.”

The Faculty Senate will have a special meeting next week to discuss a request to Old Main for a one-year delay on the wellness plan, but university leaders have signaled that is impossible given the financial burden ahead.

“The financial imperative is so great at this point, that we cannot institute a one-year moratorium,” Gray said. “We cannot delay the inevitable. If we don’t get on top of this challenge now, each and every year we will compound our problem. It is unfortunate, but we are facing double-digit increases that amount to millions of dollars and we must address it now.”

Another faculty group, the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors, applauded the university’s move, and chapter vice president Michelle Rodino-Colocino said she is pleased to see the university promise to work with employees to review the wellness plan.

“There is more work to be done, but gaining a voice for employees at Penn State is meaningful progress,” she said.

More than 10,000 employees have participated in the program so far, human resources administrator Susan Basso said last week. Basso said she’s received positive feedback from employees who learned through the screening they had, for instance, Type 2 diabetes.

However, it’s not clear whether employees who already have completed the screening and online profile can have the information retracted or removed. University spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said Penn State is examining that possibility.

Not all employees are against the wellness plan.

Dan Lehman, an information technology project manager in the Materials Research Institute, said he was disappointed the university backed down because he fears the university might have to raise employees’ premiums to cover its increased health care costs. He completed the requirements of the wellness plan soon after the announcement this summer, and is confident WebMD Health Services will protect his medical information.

“If I could choose, I wouldn’t want my medical information out there at all, but at least with WebMD Health Services I know it’s protected,” he said. “I worry that there are other areas where my medical information may have been leaked.”