Penn State Eliminates Fines for Employees Who Skip Wellness Questions

Penn State Harrisburg

Matthew C. Woessner, an associate professor on Penn State's Harrisburg campus and leader of opposition to the wellness plan, said the university's decision to drop the fines "removes the major ethical obstacle."
September 19, 2013

Pennsylvania State University has dropped a controversial plan to levy a $1,200 annual fine on employees who fail to answer health-related questions that many faculty members called too invasive.

A professor on the university's Harrisburg campus who had been one of the plan's most vocal opponents said eliminating the fine had alleviated faculty members' biggest concerns.

At issue was an online questionnaire the university unveiled in July as part of a new wellness plan. The plan was aimed at cutting the institution's health-care costs, which have risen by 20 percent over the last two years, to more than $217-million in the 2013-14 academic year.

Among other questions, the online survey asked employees about their plans to become pregnant, about how frequently they drank too much alcohol, and about whether they had experienced problems with violence, depression, or a divorce or separation.

The questions drew loud objections from both inside the university and out. Professors said the university was compelling employees to reveal private information or face a $100-a-month fine.

The university's Faculty Senate planned to meet next week to consider a faculty petition that called on university administrators to delay the new health-care initiative by a year. The petition said the university needed to talk more to experts about the wisdom of the plan, as well as to faculty members about their concerns.

In addition, this week the chairwoman of the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Status of Women wrote a letter to Penn State administrators saying questions about female employees' pregnancy plans were not only invasive but discriminatory.

"Penn State's health-care provider targets women employees by imposing on them a special burden of disclosure about their sexual intent," wrote Hilde Lindemann, a professor of philosophy at Michigan State University. "Are male employees required to disclose their intended sexual activity over the year?"

Feeling Penalized

In a statement it posted on Wednesday on its Web site, Penn State said it recognized widespread objections to the wellness plan and agreed that administrators needed more time to discuss it with professors.

"We have decided to suspend the $100-per-month surcharge so that people who are uncomfortable with any aspect of the survey will not feel as if they are being penalized," said Rodney Erickson, the university's president. "What we are hearing is that there has not been enough time to discuss and digest this initiative."

The university said that while it would drop the $1,200 annual fine for those who failed to answer the questionnaire, it could not afford to delay the wellness plan for a year. It will still ask employees to complete the survey and to participate in the plan's two other elements.

They ask employees to pledge to have a complete physical examination in the next year and to undergo health screenings to measure waist size, blood pressure, and other indicators. Those screenings are being performed this fall on the Penn State system's campuses by the university's health-care provider.

Matthew C. Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State's Harrisburg campus, was one of the first to publicly object to the new wellness plan. He had suggested that faculty members protest the questionnaire by completing it, in order to avoid the fine, but by providing bogus answers.

Now that the university has dropped fines for those who do not want to complete the survey, Mr. Woessner said professors' concerns had mostly disappeared. "It removes the major ethical obstacle moving forward," said Mr. Woessner, who added that the Faculty Senate would still discuss the plan at next week's meeting. "It takes away the coercive aspects of the plan."