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Health Care Profiles at Penn State: A Prescription for Controversy?

by on July 22, 2013 6:27 AM

Penn State employees recently received information on the opportunity to save $1,200 on our health care benefits for the coming year. According to new procedures, by registering our health profile and that of our spouse or same-sex domestic partner (SSDP) and by participating in a health screening, Penn State employees will have the ability to reduce their monthly health insurance costs by $100.

It didn’t take long for complaints to hit the proverbial fan. Apparently some are expressing concern, if not outrage at this alleged violation of privacy. What will Penn State do with the information? How will this information be used?

I think I’m more surprised by the fact that people are surprised at this new request for our personal information than I am by the actual request for it.

If we expect our employers to pay for our health insurance, why wouldn’t we think they have a right to our health information?

In simple terms, insurance is the purchase of financial protection in the event of an accident or injury. A group of people come together and pool their money to protect themselves against the possibility that something bad might happen. When an individual within the group is hurt or becomes ill, that person can use the pooled money to pay expenses.

Health insurance as a “pay in advance” system reportedly originated at Baylor University hospital in the early 20th century when a hospital administrator noted that many of their unpaid accounts were from local teachers and their families. That administrator came up with the idea of a monthly just-in-case payment system for teachers and later, other local businesses.

That payment plan was the foundation for what we now call Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Later, health insurance was among the employment benefits used to woo new employees when companies were limited in salary negotiations during the government imposed wage freeze of World War II.

How our health care system got to a point that we can no longer pay out of pocket is a topic for another column.

Insurance works because of numbers. Whereas smaller companies come together to pool their resources and employees, Penn State, like Ford and other large corporations, negotiates insurance rates based on their employees as a stand-alone group. Working with their insurer, Penn State analyzes its 33,378 benefit eligible employees (including the faculty and staff at the campuses and in special programs like Hershey Medical Center) to determine risks and costs.

Rates are based on how many broken bones, tonsillectomies, breast cancers and so forth will occur in that group multiplied by the cost to treat each of those ailments and then divided by the number of people in the group.

Fortunately, many employers like Penn State have been willing to take on the bulk of that cost.

Unfortunately, as health care costs have skyrocketed, insurance premiums have also increased. Recent efforts by employers to curb costs and to support accountability in spending have meant that the employee contribution has increased.

I started at Penn State as an adjunct employee (no benefits) and then was bumped to part-time (some benefits but at greater out-of-pocket cost than my full-time counterparts). Since becoming a full-time employee, my contribution in terms of monies taken out of my salary as well as my “co-pay” when seeing a physician or going to the hospital have gradually increased.

As a University Park employee covered by High Mark Blue Shield, I pay a little under $300 for medical, vision and dental coverage for me and my family (including my 23 year old daughter who, before Obamacare, would have had to find her own insurance after she graduated from college).

It’s a pretty good deal.

Last year, when my son ended up with a strep infection in his knee, he was hospitalized, given medication and eventually had to have a surgical cleaning of the infected area. Total cost of the 5 day stay, including room and board, doctor bills, medicine and supplies came to almost $60,000. We ended up paying out of pocket about $350 to the doctors and another $400 to the hospital (plus the monthly premium costs that are deducted from my paycheck).

There have been times in my life that I wasn’t covered by an employee benefit plan and had to purchase insurance on my own. I appreciate my Penn State benefits.

People are concerned about what Penn State will do with that information, particularly if the profile indicates a compromised health status for an employee or a family member. If I’m obese -- will that somehow jeopardize my benefits or worse, my employment? How will it impact other employment features like promotions or advancements? How might the illness or injury of a spouse or partner influence my employment? Will private and sensitive information about employees be accessible to other entities – either purposefully or inadvertently?

I personally plan to use it as incentive to drop a few pounds, move around a bit more and take better care of my health.

The great thing about our country is that we have the freedom to make choices. If you don’t like the new requirement, you don’t have to comply. You can either pay the higher premium or find employment elsewhere.

We are entering into uncharted territory with the new health care and health insurance regulations that will soon become the law of the land. New mandates through what has been called Obamacare will change the face of health insurance.

Efforts to mandate health insurance and make demands of employers seem to have omitted discussions about costs. I don’t think anyone has any idea what this is all going to eventually cost employers and/or individuals. Employers like Penn State can’t be faulted for trying to find a way to address these rising costs and by managing risk.

You can’t, after all, have your cake and eat it too.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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