Health Care and Indiana University and Employee Benefits and Health Care & Life Sciences and Health Care & Insurance

Employee ire forces IU to pull wellness survey

October 27, 2010

Indiana University, the fourth-largest employer in the state, is backing off a key part of its new wellness program after a backlash from employees.

The school will no longer ask employees to fill out an online health risk assessment after more than 550 people—many anonymous—attached names to an online petition that said the plan would cause “widespread anger and disillusionment” among the IU work force.

The idea was to have medical staff at Indianapolis-based Clarian Health review each questionnaire and provide suggestions for ways each employee could improve his or her health. IU, which employs 17,000 workers, has seen its health-benefits costs surge 8 percent to 12 percent each year.

The questionnaire is one part of what IU calls the Health Engagement Plan. The plan also asks employees covered by the IU health plan to sign a commitment to use no tobacco products and undergo tests of their blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and body-mass index.

In exchange, IU employees with family coverage could save between $40 and $160 per month on their premium contributions, depending on their pay level. For individual coverage, the savings range from $20 to $80 per month.

Those “savings” largely would have offset premium increases taking effect next year as part of IU’s efforts to curb the yearly growth in its health-benefits spending.

“The whole intent of this was, give employees a tool to lead to decisions that would lead to healthier lifestyles,” said IU spokesman Larry MacIntyre. But, he added, “unless people are somewhat enthusiastic or feel confident about it, it’s not going to be effective.”

So on Monday, IU announced it would cancel the questionnaire and destroy any data already gathered from it. But the school still will ask employees to sign the tobacco-free commitment and submit to the blood tests and body-mass-index screenings.

Complaints about the wellness plan from IU staff ranged from the erudite to the conspiratorial.

“The ethics of the questionnaire presented are deeply fraught (ex., asking if we attend religious services as part of our health profile),” wrote Pheadra C. Pezzullo, a professor of communications and culture. “The idea of that information going into a corporation's database also raises serious questions.”

Virginia J. Vitzthum, an IU anthropology professor who noted she has a Ph.D., wrote, “I am a human biologist and hence familiar with the large body of scientific literature documenting substantial normal variation among humans in all aspects of biology and health. The [Health Engagement Plan] as presented appears to have ignored these data. Clearly more deliberations are needed, and I urge the inclusion of experts in human biology (experts in medicine are not equivalent) in the construction of any program.”

A man named Steve Johnson wrote, “Under the guise of promoting a healthier lifestyle you're pushing a thinly veiled scam to simply bilk more money out us.”

To read all comments submitted about the IU plan, go here.

MacIntyre said IU likely would retool the questionnaire and try again later.

“We think that there’s some value in the concept, but only if it’s accepted and utilized by employees,” he said. “So we’re going to go back and look at it early next year. But we’ve got to find a way to do it that’s accepted by employees.”

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