Professor Urges 'Civil Resistance' to New Penn State Health-Care Rules

July 30, 2013

A professor at Pennsylvania State University is encouraging faculty members to protest a $1,200 annual fine the institution plans to levy on employees who do not comply with new health-care requirements, and he says they should undermine the plan by purposefully giving inaccurate answers on a wellness questionnaire that is part of it.

The professor, Matthew C. Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State's Harrisburg campus, has written an open letter, titled "A Call for Action and Civil Resistance for Penn State Employees," that is posted on the blog of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

It says the online medical questionnaire, which asks questions about whether employees perform breast and testicular self-examinations, for example, violates their right to privacy. The university "can't guarantee that this information won't get hacked and our most intimate details will be spread everywhere," says Mr. Woessner. "To coerce 15,000 faculty and staff to dump all of this information on a server is monstrous."

Mr. Woessner, a member of the University Faculty Senate, also is concerned about a new set of required health screenings, to measure waist size, blood pressure, and other indicators, that will be performed this fall on the Penn State system's campuses by the university's health-care provider. Such tests, says Mr. Woessner, should be performed by employees' own physicians, who, he says, are most concerned about the employees' health, not the cost of maintaining it.

The new health-care requirements, which Penn State unveiled this month, specify that the university will charge employees who refuse to complete the questionnaire and health screenings $100 each per month starting next year. Penn State says it made the changes to cut its 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, and to make employees more aware of their health risks so they can try to improve their health.

"Higher education is at the crossroads with respect to our responsibilities for greater cost control," Rodney Erickson, Penn State's president, said in a written statement. "I have challenged our leadership in human resources to hold annual health-care cost increases to the Consumer Price Index plus 2 percent."

'Little More Than Extortion'

Jill Shockey, a university spokeswoman, said all responses to the online health questionnaire will remain private, and Penn State will get only aggregate data from the questionnaire regarding employees' health and habits.

But Mr. Woessner says employees should show their displeasure with the new requirements by taking steps to obfuscate them. Rather than refuse to answer the medical questionnaire and be fined $100 a month, he says, faculty members should give bogus answers. (Mr. Woessner says he stated on the questionnaire that his waist measures 20 inches and that he weighs 50 pounds.)

And instead of signing up for the biometric tests that are to be performed on the campuses, Mr. Woessner suggests employees schedule a separate doctor's visit for those tests. That would insure that the test information remains confidential and have the effect of driving up Penn State's health-care costs, instead of lowering it, he writes in the online letter.

Ms. Shockey says the university can do nothing to prevent employees from giving false information on questionnaires, but she says they would be hurting only themselves. "They won't be getting back medically based information based on their responses about their own wellness," she says.

James M. Ruiz, an associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State's Harrisburg campus and a member of the University Faculty Senate, says the $100-a-month penalty is "little more than extortion." Mr. Ruiz worked as a police officer for nearly 20 years in New Orleans before joining Penn State's faculty, in 2000.

"When I was with the police department," he says, "people would go around to businesses and say, 'If you want to operate here, you have to pay us to operate.' I don't see this as any different." Penn State, he says, is saying that if employees want health care, "you're going to have to do this, otherwise we're going to penalize you."

Not 'Fiscally Responsible'

Mr. Ruiz also says that according to federal research regulations on the use of human subjects, the university's own scholars cannot force research subjects to answer questions. But the university itself, in requiring employees to answer the questionnaire or face a fine, appears to be doing just that.

It isn't clear how many universities penalize employees for failing to meet health-care requirements like those adopted by Penn State, although several universities offer incentives for employees who participate in certain wellness efforts. Ms. Shockey says Penn State based its new policies on "benchmarks" that looked at how other institutions handle health-care requirements, and she says she believes other universities issue penalties, but she cannot name them.

In a list of frequently asked questions about the new requirements, Penn State says: "In order to offer an incentive, the university would have had to overinflate health-care premiums for all employees and then discount for those who participate. We did not feel that was fiscally responsible."

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resource, or CUPA-HR, does not collect data on universities' use of health-care penalties. But Andy Brantley, the association's president and chief executive officer, says fiscal pressures such as rising insurance costs, plus the desire of state legislators to hold down public-university tuition, have forced institutions to scrutinize their health-care plans and "find creative ways to try to rein in their health-care spending."

"While what Penn State is doing is a relatively new strategy in higher ed," he says, "it has been used in the private sector for quite some time."