Wellness program participation increases, questions being answered

Employee participation in the "Take Care of Your Health" initiative continues to grow. As of Aug. 12, 6,548 employees have scheduled biometric screenings, filling 47 percent of available appointments. Those who still need to complete the wellness profile or physical exam certification should visit and then log in and click the "Rewards Program" link.

"We appreciate how many of our employees have been proactive in completing the required steps," said Susan Basso, vice president for Human Resources. "At the same time, we understand that employees may be hearing conflicting information about our wellness initiatives, so we want to address their concerns with the most up-to-date information possible.

"Foremost on most people's minds is privacy. I can assure you that the information you provide through the wellness screening is, and will remain, private. WebMD Health Services, which developed and is administering the wellness profile through Highmark Blue Shield, is bound by HIPAA privacy and security laws. Penn State will not -- and by federal health privacy law, cannot -- have access to individual employee health records. We will never ask for an employee’s health records and will not charge an employee additional fees based on their individual health status," Basso said.

WebMD Health Services is one of the leading health and wellness authorities in the country. Like many other national health insurance plans, Highmark determined it was more efficient to partner with WebMD Health Services than to build its own health-related resources like the wellness profile. WebMD Health Services differs from, which operates a separate public website that allows free access to health and wellness information and generates revenue through the sale of advertising on its site. The services and resources offered by WebMD Health Services are purchased by health plans and employer groups and are tailored specifically for protection of sensitive information.

The FAQ found on the Office of Human Resources website at addresses a number of questions, as does the main website for the initiative at online. In addition, here are answers to some of the questions asked more recently:

Question: Will my health care costs change based on information I provide through the Take Care of Your Health Initiative?

Answer: No. The wellness profile and biometric screening results will NOT be used for any type of punitive action under any circumstances now or in the future. You will not be charged more based on your health status nor will you be refused health care coverage. The wellness profile and biometric screenings are for your use to provide you an awareness of your overall health status.

Question: Does collection of our data through the wellness profile meet institutional research guidelines?

Answer: The University does not have access to individuals' information collected through the wellness profile and will not be using any information for research purposes. According to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), this initiative does not meet the definition of Human Participant Research, as defined by federal regulations, and is, therefore, in full compliance.

Question: Why is the data collected via the biometric screening/wellness profile being sent to a third party (WebMD Health Services)?

Answer: WebMD Health Services and ICH, as business associates of Highmark, are legally bound by contract to employe at least the same strict standards of confidentiality as employed by Highmark. Highmark has appropriate, direct contractual relationships with both parties, including executed Business Associate Agreements. Thus, both WebMD Health Services and ICH are required to comply with HIPAA, as well as the additional detailed privacy and security provisions contained in their vendor contracts with Highmark, when dealing with protected health information. View more information about WebMD Health Services’ security and privacy policies at online.

Question: Do I have to go to a mobile unit for my biometric screening? This seems like a privacy issue.

Answer: No, you do not have to go to the screenings being offered on campus. You may also ask your physician to perform the screenings or report results you obtained between Jan. 1, 2013, and now. The physician directed results (PDR) form and instructions for its use are included on the employee benefits website at online.

Question: Is it legal to charge me $100 a month if I don't complete the wellness profile?

Answer: The imposition of the surcharge is within the scope of permissible variations in benefits permitted under HIPAA’s non-discrimination rules. As long as the wellness incentives are limited to 20 percent of the total cost of coverage (the “COBRA Rate,” rather than what active employees are charged) in 2013, and less than 30 percent in 2014, the wellness-related surcharges are permissible.

Question: Why must I comply with these requirements?

Answer: The program is not mandatory. Ultimately, participation in the Take Care of Your Health initiative is an employee’s personal choice. As individuals and families, we all have choices to make about our participation and how we allocate our personal health care dollars. Employees may opt-out of the wellness initiatives and instead pay the surcharge.

Question: Is there any proof that these actions will achieve savings for the University?

Answer: There have been a number of studies on this topic. One such research study published in the Journal of Health Promotion in March/April 2011 looked at 10,463 wellness participants and an equal number of nonparticipant employees in Pennsylvania. The study found that: "Between 2003 and 2007, the increase in medical expenditures of the participant group was significantly less than that of the non-participant group (31 percent vs. 46 percent). Also, the participant group showed a lower increase in professional service expenditures and greater utilization of preventive services." []. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that programs with health assessment and skill building (i.e. health coaching) reduce tobacco use, dietary fat consumption, blood pressure and cholesterol, and improve seat belt use, physical activity and overall health risk scores, and reduce heavy drinking. (‘The Community Guide” Worksite Health Promotion. online). There are other studies available that calculate savings as well.

Question: Why does Penn State feel it should be involved in the management of my health?

Answer: Penn State introduced the "Take Care of Your Health" initiative as a way to help control the rising costs of health care for both the University and for enrolled individuals and their families who pay monthly health premiums. Helping our employees become aware of their risk factors and directing them to the appropriate resources to take action to mitigate those risks is an important aspect of the initiative. While many employees live a healthful lifestyle, follow the Highmark preventive schedule, and manage their risk factors, many other employees do not. Research has shown that participation in wellness programs does result in medical cost savings (see previous answer). Our wellness strategy is a deliberate and aggressive attempt to reduce the rate of health care cost increases — something that we have been unable to do previously and something we must do if we hope to maintain a quality benefits program. Despite several million dollars in University expenditures over the past decade in support of voluntary programs for health and wellness, only a very small percentage of faculty and staff have participated. Penn State's insurance plan is self-funded. On average, our benefits-enrolled employees pay about 17 percent of health care costs and the University pays the balance, or about 83 percent. If we can improve the health of our participants through increased awareness and engagement in their own health, the rates of our health insurance can be maintained at current levels or even reduced. This opportunity is too great to ignore.

Last Updated August 28, 2013