Penn State wellness plan draws fireNews added by Benefits Pro on August 20, 2013

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By Dan Cook

Perhaps it's time to rethink employee wellness plans.

A recent uprising against wellness incentives at Penn State University suggests that using sanctions to force participation in wellness programs may not be such a good idea.

Penn State University employees, led by two professors, attacked the university over its requirement that they either participate in an online wellness survey administered by WebMD or face monthly fines of $100.

Penn State has turned to wellness programs to more tightly focus its healthcare benefits packages. It told employees they had to answer a series of questions about their state of health and the steps they take to safeguard their health. Those who refused to fill out the online questionnaire would have to pay the $100 a month penalty, presumably until they finished the online questionnaire.

Professors Brian Curran and Matthew Woessner are spearheading protests against the policy.

Curran launched an online petition asking the university to cancel the program. The Wall Street Journal reported that it had more than 2,000 signatures by Friday.

Meantime, in a commentary in the Patriot-News for Central Pennsylvania, Woessner took a different tack. He called on employees to fill out the online forms, but not to give the university true personal data. That way, he said, they would have fulfilled the requirement while safeguarding their personal health information.

Both professors accused the university of heavy-handed tactics that were really designed to cut health care costs, regardless of the consequences to employees of being forced to reveal extremely personal information.

“Sure of their good intentions, university officials are blind to the ethical ramifications of an employer forcing employees to hand over extremely private information to the world’s largest medical website,” Woessner fumed in his opinion piece in the Patriot-News. “Still worse, administrators seem astonished by the outrage of employees, who recognize the need to control cost, but can’t understand why doing so necessitates disclosing their intimate medical secrets.”

Among the information the WebMD survey is designed to extract:
  • The basics, such as height, weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
  • Any illnesses, including arthritis, cancer, depression, colon polyps and migraines.
  • Medical procedures, including colonoscopy, digital rectal exam and prostate screenings.
  • Personal choices, including diet, tobacco use, drinking, narcotics/recreational drug us.
  • Emotional states, including hopelessness, persistent sadness or anxiety.
  • Personal problems, including troubles with family, friends or coworkers, including a death in the family, divorce, financial problems or violence.
Woessner’s recommendation was the employees create fraudulent profiles with the WebMD survey, which would not only protect their privacy but probably screw up the university’s healthcare tracking system.

“It is quite unfortunate and sad that employees are forced to take such measures to protect their privacy and that HR is dismissive of their concerns,” he wrote.

The university has responded by calling Woessner’s scheme “unfortunate and sad,” and continues to trumpet how many employees have filled out the online form and have scheduled “biometric screenings” (once known as physicals) with their doctors, another requirement.

Employees should rest easy about their personal information, said Susan Basso, Penn State’s vice president for HR.

“I can assure you that the information you provide through the wellness screening is, and will remain, private,” Basso said.

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