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Wellness Wars II: Score!

Posted by John McDonough  September 19, 2013 09:27 PM

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In mid-August, I posted an entry called "The Wellness Wars" concerning new workforce wellness requirements at Penn State University (PSU), including $100 per month fines on workers who fail to comply. Under the new rules, faculty and staff (and their respective spouses if covered under PSU's health plan) were required complete a mandatory, detailed, personal health questionnaire along with other tests such as biometric screenings that include body mass index (BMI) measures and cholesterol and blood-sugar tests to avoid the fines.

Many faculty and staff objected and launched a campaign to pressure PSU officials to cancel the fines.  Employers across the nation are becoming more assertive in creating incentive and penalties to get workers to change their health habits.  The PSU fines became a flashpoint in this growing controversy -- which has accelerated because of the Affordable Care Act's provisions giving employers more flexibility to incorporate wellness rewards and penalties into their health plan designs.

Who would win -- PSU officials or the protesting faculty and staff?

Here's the Penn State announcement -- winner: faculty and staff:

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A $100 monthly surcharge for Penn State employees who fail to participate in a screening portion of a new wellness initiative has been waived by the University, according to President Rodney Erickson, who said his administration has clearly heard the concerns from faculty and staff on the issue. In addition, a joint task force will be formed to provide advice on the implementation of the program and on health benefits matters.

"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," Erickson said. "There is still a tremendous financial challenge that we must address in the coming year and beyond, but we also need to acknowledge the concerns of employees and seek their advice on how to overcome these fiscal roadblocks and still provide quality health care."

You can be sure that employers all of the nation are aware of this development. Does this spell the end of these kinds of penalties?  I don't think so.  I do suspect employers contemplating wellness penalties on their workers will be more likely to think twice. This skirmish is over for now -- the wellness wars, I predict, are just warming up.

(Correction: Edited to reflect that PSU is a "state-related" university, though not a public university in the commonly understood sense.)

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »

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