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Health screening penalties 'harmful'

| Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, 8:53 p.m.

Penn State's promise to fine employees $100 a month if they fail to get health screenings and complete a probing online health survey is unusual in an industry where incentives to take part in such programs are more common.

Some fear it could become the norm in a world in which employers seek ways to curb escalating health insurance costs.

“This stuff is harmful, not only because its premise of savings is really weak, but concern about the lack of health privacy causes millions of people to avoid early diagnosis and treatment for cancer, depression and STDs every year,” said Deborah Peel, an Austin-based physician who founded the nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights Foundation and advocates for tighter confidentiality of health data.

Penn State announced the new program, which it called “a deliberate and aggressive attempt to reduce” health care cost increases, last month.

Highmark Health Services, which administers Penn State's insurance program, said its data show such programs can cut costs.

A spokesman for Highmark Health Services said the company counted $1.3 million in savings during a four-year study of its corporate wellness program. Highmark spokesman Leilyn Perri said the company wellness program is similar to Penn State's, but it gives employees who participate $100 a month toward health insurance premiums.

WebMD Health Services, a division of WebMD, administers online health surveys for Penn State and many other large employers.

A company spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about the Penn State program, instead citing a company policy statement.

“All of the information that WebMD Health Services receives is kept confidential in accordance with its privacy policy and only used for purposes of providing personalized health and wellness services,” the statement reads. It says all information is maintained in compliance with the federal health care information privacy laws.

The University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education offer employee wellness programs. None fines employees for not participating.

Pitt spokesman Ken Service said the university makes programs such as weight loss, exercise and nutrition counseling available on a voluntary basis. Pitt doesn't use penalties or incentives. Temple, which also uses WebMD, and the 14-university state system offer incentives to participate in wellness programs.

“Most of them may call it an incentive, but if you don't participate, you forfeit something,” said Al Lewis, president of Disease Management Purchasing Consortium International. “Whether you call it an incentive or not, it's just a different side of the same coin.”

A 2012 RAND Corp. study said that while 92 percent of large employers offer such programs, and most believe they reduce costs and improve health, there have been few rigorous studies of the programs.

“The wellness industry is selling more preventive medical care to a country whose insured population is drowning in preventive medical care,” Lewis said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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