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Penn State Backs Down

September 19, 2013

Pennsylvania State University announced Wednesday that it is abandoning a plan to charge employees $100 a month if they do not participate in various health screening activities and fill out a detailed health questionnaire.

Faculty members and other employees objected to the requirements, and attention of late has focused on the details of the health questionnaire, which includes prompts to women about whether they plan to become pregnant in the next year. Critics of the plan said that Penn State had gone way too far, and that requiring answers to such questions invaded the privacy of employees.

"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," Rodney Erickson, president of Penn State, said in a statement. "There is still a tremendous financial challenge that we must address in the coming year and beyond, but we also need to acknowledge the concerns of employees and seek their advice on how to overcome these fiscal roadblocks and still provide quality health care."

Many colleges and universities -- and other employers -- have in recent years offered financial incentives to employees to participate in wellness programs. The idea is that those who improve their health or identify health issues they face early on are more likely to avoid serious conditions that are likely to be expensive to treat. But Penn State is part of a smaller number of employers that have used sticks and not just carrots to promote wellness. And that's when the university found itself with many angry faculty members.

Things got worse for administrators' efforts to sell the plan when the university announced it was instituting a $75 monthly surcharge for smokers, and an additional $100 monthly surcharge for coverage for spouses and domestic partners eligible for insurance through their own jobs. Those policies were opposed -- even by many who don't smoke or who don't have spouses on their health insurance -- as examples of what people fear is a ratcheting up of attempts to charge employees and to punish them, in effect, for choices they make that differ from those the university prefers.

Citing "the university's financial constraints," Wednesday's announcement said that Penn State was keeping the extra fees for smokers and spouses.

The statement noted that Penn State is expected to spend $217 million on health care benefits for employees in 2013-14, an increase of 13 percent over the previous year. Such increases are "not sustainable," the university said. While the university has cited such figures throughout the debate over health care costs, the statistics have not won over many fans and Penn State officials have been frustrated as press coverage of the faculty anger has grown.

Also Wednesday, the university announced that it would create a new committee -- one including faculty members and other employees -- to review the health policy changes that have been adopted and to consider future changes.

Matthew Woessner, associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State's Harrisburg campus and one of the faculty leaders who organized opposition to the changes, said in an interview Wednesday that he viewed the news as "largely positive." Woessner said that he wished that all of the new policies had been withdrawn, but he said that the "administration seems to have hit pause on this." The new committee, he added, may well be able to come up with additional changes.

In turning to a broad-based committee to sort out the issues, Woessner said, the university was "moving in the right direction on shared governance" in addition to doing away with one of the worst parts of the health plan. "This is win-win for everyone," he said.

Brian Curran, a professor of art history at Penn State's main campus and president of the American Association of University Professors' new chapter there, said via e-mail that he was pleased as well by the administrators' about-face. "It can't have been easy for them after defending for so long against an ever-rising chorus of critics," he said.

Curran said he remained concerned about whether there were adequate privacy protections for those employees who have filled out the health questionnaires, and he said that the new fees for smokers or having spouses covered who have the potential to be covered elsewhere are both "regressive" provisions that will have the greatest impact on employees with relatively low compensation levels.

Still Curran said that "the administration has finally begun listening to the concerns expressed by these dedicated employees.... We hope that is the beginning of a new era of transparency and shared governance at Penn State."

 

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