Penn State gets tough on staying healthy

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In the health care realm, where various carrots and sticks are deployed to get employees to live healthier or lose weight, Penn State University is wielding one of the bigger sticks out there.

On Jan. 1, Penn State will charge a $100-a-month fee to those employees who don't participate in the school's "Take Care of Your Health" initiative, which launches this autumn.

According to materials distributed by the university, employees and spouses covered by the university's health care plan must complete an online wellness profile, schedule a physical exam and have a "biometric" screening, which measures lipids, blood glucose, body mass index and other physical attributes.

If they don't take those steps, their health care premiums essentially go up $1,200 a year. (Penn State's health plan is offered through Pittsburgh health insurer Highmark Inc.)

Faculty, naturally, weren't enthusiastic about the new plan requirements.

"There was a sense among faculty and staff that this was new and different, and not in a good way," said Larry Cata Backer, a globalization and international affairs professor at Penn State, and former head of the school's faculty senate at the main campus.

"No one had been really prepared for it."

While Penn State faculty may have been caught off guard by the wellness plan and the $100-a-month charge for noncompliance, such plans are becoming more typical. Highmark itself uses such a plan design, with the same $100 monthly surcharge for those employees who don't agree to health and wellness screenings.

"This is where companies are going," said Mike Fiaschetti, president of health markets for Highmark's insurance wing. Highmark's own research suggests that for every $1 spent on wellness programs, $1.65 in health care costs are saved down the line. And, despite some grousing, most employees eventually comply.

At Highmark, the compliance rate for the wellness and screening programs was 88 percent in 2012.

Which begs the question -- why are the rest of the participants flushing money down the toilet? Mostly out of privacy concerns, or because they are simply forgetful or disorganized, Mr. Fiaschetti said.

While everybody can benefit from a wellness screening and physical every now and again, the main goal of the screening is to find the "walking time bombs" -- those who have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, but don't know it yet. Those conditions are treatable, and preventable, if caught early enough.

Norm Kerr of Buck Consultants' health and productivity division said different companies see different results when it comes to more punitive plans like these.

Among his clients, "Fifty percent of the employers can't tell whether it's saving them money or not, [and] the other half say it is," Mr. Kerr said.

In the long run, though, prevention will pay dividends, he said. "Am I a supporter? Yeah. Do I think wellness matters? Yeah ... every employer has their reasons for doing what they need to do to control costs," Penn State included.

Penn State cited those very reasons when asked about the new wellness policy and associated fees.

"Health care costs have been growing for years at the university, and without significant action they will quickly become unmanageable," said Reidar Jensen, a spokesman for Penn State.

While acknowledging that the premium differential might be initially "unsettling," Mr. Jensen said that the university's "health care spend is projected to be $217 million in 2013-2014. Without intervention, this is a growth of approximately 13 percent over the previous year.

"Passing large increases year after year on to employees or our students is not a sustainable strategy."

Mr. Backer, the Penn State faculty member, said he did not question the school's money-saving motives, but wished the school's 17,500 employees -- there are 40,000 health plan beneficiaries in all -- had been consulted more regularly along the way (the school says its human resources team briefed the several faculty senate committees and advisory councils before finalizing the new health plan).

From a professor's standpoint, "This really touches on what other people might call human dignity concerns ... social engineering and health engineering," Mr. Backer said.

So far, according to the Penn State, more than 5,100 faculty and staff have scheduled an appointment for a biometric screening and more than 4,200 already have completed a wellness profile.

Will Mr. Backer?

"Of course," he said. "Wouldn't you?"

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Bill Toland: or 412-263-2625.


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