Pennsylvania State University held a telephone press conference for reporters Thursday regarding its “Take Care of Your Health” wellness initiative. Administrators said the plan was an educated and well-intentioned attempt at managing skyrocketing health care costs – projected to grow by 13 percent by next year absent intervention – without passing that burden on to employees through higher deductibles and co-pays. Susan Basso, vice president for human resources, said Penn State’s average employee deductible is about $250, compared to a regional average of $1,500. The university believes that its new plan will lead to earlier detection of illnesses, leading to better health outcomes for employees and lower health care costs in the long run for Penn State, she said.
Donald Fischer, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Highmark Health Services, Penn State’s insurance provider, said that several studies – included one funded by Highmark– showed that such measures led to $1.65 in health care savings for every $1 spent on wellness initiatives. An independent researcher involved in that study, Ron Z. Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, said the study offered sophisticated controls and was published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s backed up by additional independent studies, he said.
The call followed a media blitzkrieg of negative coverage of the wellness measure, capstoned by a Harvard Business Review blog post called “The Danger of Wellness Programs: Don’t Become the Next Penn State.” Faculty have expressed outrage at the program’s punitive surcharges of $75 to $100 for not completing biometric screenings, online wellness profiles and physical exams, and for smoking and covering spouses and domestic partners eligible for health insurance through their own employers. Some faculty also have raised concerns about the uploading of their personal medical information into WebMD online, a third-party electronic records system.
During the call, David Gray, Penn State’s senior vice president, said seeds of the plan were in place as far back as 2008, and that the Faculty Senate was briefed on the plan in 2011, before the Jerry Sandusky story broke. He called that a fact some in the media “missed."
Basso said that although other university wellness programs have focused on positive participation incentives, Penn State saw no cost savings after pouring “millions” of dollars into such incentives in the past. Surcharges were the most “transparent” way to drive participation, she said, rather than artificially inflating health care contributions for employees to then offer a discount. No personal information will be used for punitive purposes and the employee medical information recently uploaded to WebMD will never be available to Penn State other than in aggregate form, she said.