Penn State

Penn State task force chides university for rollout of wellness program

A task force charged with studying health care options at Penn State has criticized the university for how it rolled out a controversial wellness program implemented over the summer.

The group’s report, released by the university Thursday, cited a lack of transparency and called for a “major shift” in how the administration and employees communicate about health care.

“The culture of behind-the-scenes orchestration of such important initiatives should be replaced with a culture of open and free flow of information and frequent consultation, creating the climate for transparent decision-making and shared governance,” the task force wrote in the report.

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 group, composed of Penn State faculty members, administrators and staffers, compared health care benefit programs at eight other Big Ten universities, and at Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh, and investigated ways the university could better communicate about changes and benefits.

The task force found that workplace wellness programs, like the one Penn State implemented, “appear to have a small, but statistically significant, impact on a few employee health behaviors or health risks such as smoking cessation and weight loss,” but that “the long-term effects remain unclear.”

Of all the universities the task force surveyed, only Penn State assessed surcharges for spouses/partners who have access to insurance through their own employer, and for those using tobacco, according to the report.

The report, which will be formally presented to the Faculty Senate at its last meeting of the academic year on Tuesday, makes recommendations for further investigation, but doesn’t call for action.

“Given the limited time provided to craft this report, and considering the complex and often subtle tradeoffs that will be faced in any formal evaluation of options, the task force can do no more than set the stage by providing a framework for detailed analysis and discussion, which must inevitably follow,” the task force wrote in its report.

The task force’s goal, according to the report, 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 task force report delivered by the joint Faculty Senate-administration committee pushes forward the important need for continued study of this issue,” Susan Basso, Penn State’s vice president for human resources, said in a statement. “It was a very knowledgeable group that examined our health care challenges, and their input is valuable. Some of the recommendations presented are avenues that we have already been exploring, while other recommendations will require more study to determine their feasibility and cost-effectiveness.”

The Faculty Senate had previously voted to suspend penalties for noncompliance with the wellness initiative, and asked 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.”