Do You Smoke? Pay $75 a Month

First Pennsylvania State University made employees verify that their children were in fact their own and their marriages were real to continue receiving health care benefits. Next, it announced that employees who didn’t submit to a biometric screening by fall, and annually, would have to pay a $100 monthly insurance surcharge.

So last week, when Penn State announced it was instituting a $75 monthly surcharge for smokers, and an additional $100 surcharge for coverage for spouses and domestic partners eligible for insurance through their own jobs, some faculty took it as proof that their benefits were under attack.

“Let me preface this by saying I don’t smoke and I don’t care for smoking and I’m glad there are regulations against smoking in the work place,” said Lee Samuel Finn, professor physics and astronomy at Penn State’s main campus in University Park.“But what we’re talking about here is reducing someone’s compensation because they smoke, and that’s not a whole lot different than telling someone we’re not going to hire you because we don’t like the way you live your life.”

Matthew Woessner, professor of political science at the Harrisburg campus, said he was equally outraged, and that’s it’s a slippery slope from penalizing someone for smoking to penalizing them for a much more common health problem: being overweight.

“It’s very important that people understand the larger principle involved,” he said. “Once an organization thinks it has the right to regulate legal conduct, there’s no reason to think it couldn’t levy that right to arguably a more serious health problem in America.”

Both professors also objected to the new requirement for spouses and partners, on the grounds that Penn State employees already pay extra each month to cover a spouse, plus additional charges for children, depending on income.

And there’s no consideration as to what kind of plan the partner is being offered through his or work; consequently, he or she could be forced into a deeply inferior plan or the family could be out $100 a month, Finn said. “This is just not family-friendly.”

Penn State says the measures are necessary to help curb skyrocketing insurance costs for its self-funded system. It estimates that its health care costs will top $217 million in the coming year, and will balloon further without significant intervention.

“We are implementing a significant set of changes that will help us turn the tide on unmanageable increases in health care costs for our faculty and staff,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said in a news release about the plan. “Higher education is at the crossroads with respect to our responsibilities for greater cost control, and now is the time for decisive action.”

Erickson said he’d challenged Penn State’s human resources team to hold annual health care costs increases to the Consumer Price Index plus 2 percent, “a goal that will help us to sustain the existing quality of employee health care options while easing pressures on tuition increases that our students and their families.”

In the case of tobacco use, each user on a Penn State employee’s insurance plan will pay $75 a month extra for benefits. Penn State defines “user” as anyone who has used tobacco more than five times in the three previous months. That includes cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, pipe tobacco or any other tobacco product.

Both measures are self-reported.

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