Karen Heller: Penn State's unpalatable policy on health

Posted: July 25, 2013

Possibly the goal is to transform Happy Valley into Healthy Valley, the satellite campuses as well, but a new policy mandated by Penn State may not be good medicine.

This month, the university announced the "Take Care of Your Health" mandatory initiative for faculty and staff. The plan requires 17,000 employees to provide vital information including cholesterol, body mass index, blood pressure, and, my favorite, waist circumference, or incur $100 monthly surcharges.

It's a new battle of the bulge: Tell us your girth or we'll reduce your wages.

"The new strategy at Penn State will seek to realize savings for both the university and for employees, holding down the costs of individual health-care premium contributions," said university spokesman L. Reidar Jensen, who cited the move as part of "long-term strategic efforts at Penn State to identify areas of cost savings and efficiencies."

But experts say there is scant evidence such initiatives and collecting health data ultimately improve employees' health and lowers costs. Many health problems are inherited or caused by environment. "I'm very skeptical. People don't change their behavior in response to information they didn't seek," said Mark Pauly, professor of health care management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "It's a pipe dream that it will save Penn State money."

Increasingly, companies are requesting employees' health information, but Penn State's program "is far more aggressive in terms of its punishment," Pauly said, while requiring more tests, an online wellness profile, and a "preventive physical exam" certification.

"What is the utility of collecting this information and what are they going to do with it?" asked Kevin Volpp, director of Wharton's Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics. "There's a real question as to whether such a program is going to be effective in lowering the health risks of their employees," he said, while the "$100-a-month surcharge may not be the most effective way of incentivizing employees to do something."

Penalties, instead of modest rewards, can "have negative consequences," Volpp said.

"This is universally repugnant to the faculty," said Matthew Woesnner, a Penn State associate professor of public policy. He thinks the university "crossed the line in mandating employees to get this information. I think people have a right to govern their own health care."

In seeking "wellness," a buzzword and business practice in contemporary health care and insurance, Penn State elevated the stress among employees.

Penn State, one of the nation's largest universities, didn't appear to consult its own experts. "What's curious is, nobody I'm aware of who has done research in this area was involved," said Dennis Scanlon, a Penn State professor of health policy and administration. "What often drives these decisions are benefits consultants, people who have a vested interest in canned 'solutions,' like 'wellness.' "

Staffers are also skeptical about announcing the policy change in July, when few faculty members are on campus. Staff, who do not enjoy tenure, are less willing to go public with their issues.

"Anything announced in the middle of the summer is bound to be overlooked. It's analogous to the White House making an important announcement late Friday," said Woesnner, whom I reached as he hiked near Altoona.

"Faculty members feel this was imposed without much discussion or preparation. It feels very top-down," said law professor Larry Backer, former chair of the faculty senate. "It's very difficult for any kind of organized response. By the time people are back, we will be well into complying with the program."

And this is Penn State, a place that has not enjoyed a recent history of transparency. Said Backer: "There was certainly no sense of engagement." He added, "Some people worry that if you open this door, you have no idea where it will end."

So far, "Take Care of Your Health" appears to be a program of all guts, no glory.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists blog, Blinq, at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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