On campus, a faculty uprising over personal data

Improving health while holding down health care costs is the kind of having-your-cake-and-eating-it combination that most people can get behind. In fact, both ideas are embedded in the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, The New York Times reports.

But an uprising among faculty members at Pennsylvania State University over a new employee wellness plan is challenging at least some of the methods designed to achieve those aims.

Penn State administrators quietly introduced the plan, called “Take Care of Your Health,” this summer in the deadest part of the academic calendar. But that didn’t prevent some conscientious objectors from organizing a protest online and on their campuses, culminating last week in an emotionally charged faculty senate meeting. The plan, they argued, is coercive, punitive and invades university employees’ privacy.

The plan requires nonunion employees, like professors and clerical staff members, to visit their doctors for a checkup, undergo several biometric tests and submit to an extensive online health risk questionnaire that asks, among other questions, whether they have recently had problems with a co-worker, a supervisor or a divorce. If they don’t fill out the form, $100 a month will be deducted from their pay for noncompliance.

Employees who do participate will receive detailed feedback on how to address their health issues.

At a university where some employees earn less than $50,000 annually, the faculty members contended that an $1,200 annual surcharge for nonparticipation — or $2,400 if the employee has a spouse or domestic partner on the school’s plan when that person has the option of coverage from his or her own employer — amounted to a strong-arm tactic.

“You can’t force people to disclose the state of their marriage or fine them $100 a month. That’s just wrong,” Matthew C. Woessner, an associate professor of political science at the university’s Harrisburg campus, told me. “There are ways to have a veneer of wellness without coercing people to hand over their private information to third parties.”

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