Penn State's Wellness Woes: Seven Lessons Learned About Launching a Worksite Employer-Based Health Promotion Program
Posted Aug 14 2013 8:55pm
Penn State's mascot goes on the prowl for a good wellness program
Listen to this NPR report and it's easy to conclude that another employer-based health promotion program has gone amok. Reporter Jeff Brady implies rising health care costs have led Penn State University to force its employees into an intrusive wellness initiative, pitting David-like faculty members against the Goliath-Administration.
What can wellness architects and service providers learn from this imbroglio?
Here's the facts:
Penn State provides health benefits to over 45,000 employees and dependents. It's self-insured (administered by Highmark), which means the University, not some remote insurer, is on the hook for any unanticipated health care costs.
Those costs have led to a whopping $217 million health care budget for 2013-2014 and a long term $3 billion pension liability . In response to the threat of budgetary "crowd out," the University made some important changes to the insurance benefit that included a high deductible option and value-based benefits.
The Disease Management Care Blog speculates on lessons learned......
While worksite wellness programs have a reputation for increasing employee morale , it stands to reason for that any stressed organization ( and here's why that may be true here), it runs both ways: low employee morale can hinder acceptance of a wellness program. The faculty backlash may be as much of a symptom as a problem.
Lesson: Health promotion programs should tread lightly in times of organization turmoil. This is no time for "big bang" multidimensional interventions, especially if they involve a $100 per month penalty.
Lesson: If you're fighting high health care cost trends, don't let the positive return on investment (ROI) from health promotion take the lead. It won't work that well, and employees will think this about reducing your costs, not about increasing their well-being.
Lesson: If there are two employee groups with a special talent for indignant paranoiac outrage over any employer-sponsored health initiative, it's medical providers and university faculty. There are plenty of reasons, but the DMCB suspects both are victims of the decades-long twin cultures of 1) autonomy and 2) abundance in health care and higher education. Stopping by a Faculty Benefits Committee is not enough to secure buy-in.
Lesson: There's nothing wrong with preferring to "build" over "buy," but only if both options are carefully considered at the outset. External wellness providers are often subject to financial performance and recruitment standards. If the petition gains traction, the latter would sure come in handy here.
Critics of wellness programs in general and this one in particular say that they lead to unnecessary testing.
Lesson: The science is still evolving, but here is one answer to that criticism: it's not wellness per se but our society's love of technology. Wellness programs can use initiatives like Choosing Wisely to develop even better programs.
As a self-insured entity, Penn State technically already has access to all the employees' insurance and claims information. The WebMD privacy concern is silly.
Lesson: Now would not be a good time for Penn State's administration to point that out.