Penn State

Penn State faculty members critical of Erickson’s health care task force appointment process

A task force convened to study health care options at Penn State after employee outrage over a wellness program has begun its analysis, but the initiative does not have the blessing of some on the faculty.

Faculty members criticized President Rodney Erickson point-blank on Tuesday over the way the task force was formed, saying they feel disrespected that the university did not grant the Faculty Senate’s wish to elect representatives to the task force from among the senate.

“We tell people we’re a world-class university with a first-rate faculty,” English professor Michael Berube told Erickson. “But I’d like to see a world-class university also trust the elected representatives of its first-rate faculty to contribute even modestly and partly to decision-making of this kind.”

Six faculty members, five administrators and two staffers were appointed to the task force in October and have met twice since they received their orders on Nov. 18 from Erickson and Faculty Senate Chairman Brent Yarnal. Their charge is to deliver by April a report to the Faculty Senate that looks at potential alternatives for health care and ways to reduce expenses.

Members include the chairman, Keith Crocker, an insurance and risk management professor; Dennis Scanlon, a health policy professor; Joe Doncsecz, the university corporate controller; and Robin Oswald, director of employee benefits in the human resources office.

The disagreement stems from the resolution the Faculty Senate put forward in September that spells out the composition of the task force, at a time when it had yet to take shape. The faculty supported electing four of the members from among the senate to offer their expertise.

Berube said the Faculty Senate was informed Oct. 22 of the decision to appoint all the members of the task force.

Erickson faced another critical comment from Matthew Woessner, an assistant professor at the Harrisburg campus, who said the faculty does not have confidence in the decision.

“Many in the Faculty Senate find ironic that the administration which brought us the ill-fated ‘Take Care of Your Health’ initiative would question the senate’s competence to pick four of 12 members to the wellness task force,” he said.

Woessner then lobbed up a question for the president: “Do you regret demeaning the senate by suggesting that we’re incompetent to pick experts from among own our membership?”

Erickson defended the decision to appoint the members, saying he considered the faculty’s request, but it was not their decision to make.

“I thought this was sufficiently important that we should have a group of people on this task force who were particularly well-suited, in terms of the expertise that they bring to bear on a very important question,” Erickson said.

He said he and Yarnal identified the members of the task force and agreed the chairman should be Crocker.

“That, I believe was my prerogative, in terms of the advisory and consultative role, and I exercised that prerogative,” he said. “I think we have an outstanding group of faculty that will be given the opportunity to provide broad-ranging recommendations going forward.”

Erickson said the task force will have autonomy, too.

Crocker outlined at the meeting what the task force will do. Five subcommittees have been established to handle the work, and they will reach out to the university community to find faculty expertise in the areas of their study.

One of the subcommittees will be tasked with comparing health care practices among academic institutions starting with peer universities in the Big Ten. Another will look at health care trends in the public and private sector and whether they deserve consideration at Penn State.

A financial subcommittee will dig down into the numbers and look at how the university is spending its health care dollars.

Crocker said the report will be finished in early April and be referred to the Faculty Senate for its April 29 meeting.

The health care debate at Penn State started when the university rolled out a wellness program this summer that asked employees complete new requirements, such as an online health profile, or face a $100 monthly surcharge. The wellness plan also had new charges for smokers and for employees’ spouses who were eligible for insurance through their own employers.

The wellness plan was meant to make employees more proactive about their health, and university officials said some employees learned they had diabetes or other ailments because they saw a doctor for one of the requirements.

But others decried it as invasive because of the medical information asked of employees. They also criticized the university for strong-arming employees who couldn’t afford the surcharge and would have participate even though they didn’t want to.

In response to the outrage, Old Main reversed course. The administration nixed the $100 surcharge and the requirements of the wellness program, and instead, began offering $100 bonuses to employees who voluntarily participated in the plan.