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Penn State wellness program penalizes noncompliant workers

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 9:17 p.m.

A new Penn State wellness program that imposes a $1,200-a-year penalty on employees who fail to complete a lengthy health survey and biometric screenings has sparked widespread protests.

Participants in the university's health insurance program are required to undergo weight and blood tests and take an online survey that delves into everything from monthly testicular self-exams for men to questions about depression, job security and drug use.

University officials began the program last month, calling it part of a strategic plan to control the school's health insurance costs, which are projected to grow 13 percent to $217 million this year.

Brian Curran, an art history professor at University Park, started an online petition that had 2,093 signatures as of Friday. He said the new requirements are “coercive,” and he's asking the university to delay implementation of the program. It is scheduled to take effect in January.

The university also announced it would impose a $100 monthly surcharge on participants whose spouses are eligible for insurance elsewhere and a $75 monthly surcharge on self-reported smokers.

“They had already done a verification process in the spring where they asked us to send in proof that our dependents, spouse and children were in fact legitimate — birth certificates and marriage licenses,” Curran said.

University spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said the changes have been in the works since 2011.

“Nothing about Penn State's health care initiative is mandatory. There are consequences for nonparticipation, but all employees have a choice regarding whether or not to participate,” she said.

Although wellness programs and screenings have become the norm among large employers seeking to control health care costs, most offer incentives to participate rather than penalties for failing to do so. A recent national survey of more than 2,800 employers found only 5 percent placed a surcharge on employees whose spouse had other coverage options.

CVS/Caremark, the national pharmacy chain, sparked a similar outcry this year when it announced a plan to fine employees $50 a month if they failed to submit weight and blood work.

Matthew Woessner, an associate professor of political science at Penn State's Harrisburg campus and a member of the faculty senate, fears the surveys may not be kept confidential and that employees are being unduly pressured. He is advocating a two-pronged response.

“I've told them I'm 3 feet 8 inches tall, weigh 50 pounds and work 24 hours a week,” he said, pointing out that employees can fill out the surveys with nonsense and still meet participation requirements.

He also recommended employees go to their private physicians for biometric screenings instead of using kiosks on campus.

“It will make data gathering so expensive the university will have no choice but to back out,” he 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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