It’s one thing to lead by example and quite another to be made an example of. The executive leaders of Penn State University, who have managed to generate quite enough terrible publicity over the past couple of years, have now gone boldly where no employer has gone before. By implementing a coercive, intrusive, and wasteful “wellness” program during the academic year’s summer doldrums and miscalculating that it would go unnoticed, they have invited the wrath of their own faculty.
The PSU wellness initiative like so many before it relies on the hydra of preventive medical care, which is both clinically and fiscally ineffective; a personally intrusive health risk appraisal; and, a whopping incentive/penalty of up to $1,200 per year if you don’t play ball, which is double the national average. Penn State faculty, led by political science professor Matthew Woessner of their Harrisburg campus, have responded with outrage and a petition for withdrawal of the program, which now has 1,500 digital signatures. Penn State’s HR team, led by VP Susan Basso, has doubled down on its own ignorance claiming that the opposition is “unfortunate and sad.” What’s unfortunate and sad is that employees of a college can’t do math or read .
Penn State faculty are right to oppose the wellness program on both ethical grounds and economic grounds. Their creativity on how affected faculty and staff should respond is applause-worthy. Entering bogus data on the HRAs (both legal and harmless to employees because HRAs are anonymous) and refusing to get any of the preventive care recommended are useful guerilla steps. They are also discussing a blanket refusal to participate, which means either everyone gets hit with the penalty or no one does.
However, there is an alternative approach, and one that will break the bank in HR: get every preventive test possible and then get all the follow-up care you can for every conceivable dubious or positive result, many of which will be false positives. Faculty should also use their paid time off to rest up from the physical and emotional stress of getting all this unnecessary medical care and perhaps even think about filing workers comp claims since these stressors are all directly job related.
PSU’s stab at wellness is all the more unctuous because of the way it was rolled out. It is aimed at non-unionized, white collar employees (and their spouses), whom the University clearly expected to behave like lemmings. Ironically, given the strong inverse relationship between education, income, and health risks, these people were the least likely to need help, but it was much easier to surprise them than it was to renegotiate contracts with the Teamsters Union. PSU’s executive leadership would do well to climb off this particular ledge, admit their multiple errors, and trash their wellness program until they can design something that actually makes sense and builds a bridge of goodwill with employees. Otherwise, this chapter in wellness history will show that Penn State’s leaders could not resist the opportunity to do something to their employees instead of for them and with them. Of all the places on earth that ought not to be doing things to people anymore, it’s Penn State.
Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness. An iconoclast to the core, he is the author of the Khanna On Health Blog. He is also the Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB.
Al Lewis is the author of Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, co-author of Cracking Health Costs: How to Cut Your Company’s Health Costs and Provide Employees Better Care, and president of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium.