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Faculty Speak Out Against New Health Program

We know that Penn State’s new punitive health care program “Take Care of Your Health” faced criticism out of the gate from both university employees and outside observers. But it didn’t end with a few Inside Higher Ed editorials. Now, university employees, led by art history professor Brian Curran, are heading up a petition on aimed at squashing the new program that could fine conscientious objectors up to $100 a month for noncompliance.

“In contrast to the reward-based initiatives adopted by other institutions, which encourage, and in some cases, reward employees who take positive health steps (as represented by the Health Matters “Know Your Numbers” program), the Office of Human Resources at Penn State has adopted what can only be called a harsh and coercive punishment system, in essence requiring employees to submit to intrusive questions and comply with medical procedures, or else pay significant fines,” the petition reads. Addressed to President Erickson, the VP for Human Resources, and the Board of Trustees, the petition calls for an immediate end to the program. Since its creation, the petition has received 1,838 signatures and counting.

The controversial program, which began in July, requires employees receiving health care benefits through Penn State to complete an annual wellness questionnaire and submit to biometric screenings executed by a third-party. The goal is to increase awareness of preventive health measures, which could ultimately save the university money in the long run. Penn State has a self-funded insurance system, which means it does not partner with an insurance agency to pay for health care. Thus, it has a vested interest in making sure those costs remain as low as possible.

However, the program contrasts with more popular incentive-based options at other universities which rewards compliance instead of making it a requirement. Many Penn State employees are calling the mandatory surveys and noncompliance penalties intrusive and obtuse. The new program also penalizes employees whose spouses are on the program but could be covered through their own means.

“We demand that the Office of Human Resources put an immediate end to the implementation of these programs, and open a conversation with their constituents (including both faculty and staff) in order to develop more equitable and less intrusive strategies for containing health care costs,” the petition reads.

According to Inside Higher Education, Penn State Administrators discussed the potential policy change with University Faculty Senate’s Benefits Committee prior to its implementation. However, the committee did not take a vote to support or condemn the program. Minutes from that meeting can be viewed here.

The criticism has drawn a response from President Erickson, who addressed all Penn State employees in an open letter last week. In it, Erickson attempts to necessitate the change by explaining Penn State’s staggering annual healthcare cost increases — a projected $217 million in 2013-2014, or a 13 percent increase — which cannot be continually absorbed by tuition.

“We are embarking upon a new era in higher education,” the letter reads. “While I recognize these changes are unsettling and have raised concerns, the magnitude of our challenges leaves us no choice but to move ahead as planned.  For the University, it is better to control our health care costs and have additional latitude for reducing the rate of tuition increase, keeping our salaries competitive, and funding new initiatives than not meeting our critical imperative to reduce the rate of health care expenditures.  As individuals and families, we also will have choices to make about our participation and how we allocate our personal health care dollars.”

It remains to be seen how this battle will end. But with a multitude of high-profile faculty leaving Penn State this summer, it’s important to ensure that staff morale continues to be a drawing point to attract the best educators to our university. If this episode is any indication, we have a long way to go.

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About the Author

Ali Fogarty

Ali Fogarty is a senior from the suburbs of Philadelphia majoring in Public Relations and Political Science who's passionate about Netflix and everything bagels.

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