Starting in November, Penn State faculty and their university health care covered spouses and domestic partners were scheduled to be required to complete an online wellness profile (including questions like “do you plan to become pregnant in the next year” and “how often do you have arguments with your spouse”), a physical exam, and a biometric screening, including a full lipid profile and glucose, body mass index and waist circumference measurements in mobile units deployed by the University’s health insurance company.
If employees didn’t “volunteer” to do these things they would be punished with a $1,200.00 a year insurance surcharge. (My frienda in the military describe this kind of situation as being “volun-told”)
We’ve talked about these programs before, including how they have not been shown to be effective. We’ve also talked about the fact that body size measurements are not health measurements, and that even if they were people are different sizes for different reasons, and we have no idea how to change them long term which makes changing body size an ineffective healthcare intervention. The difference with this situation is that the employees reacted with a ferocity that warms my fat activist heart.
One of my favorite reactions was this one. It is a call for civil disobedience and the first thing I like about it was that it is written by an associate professor without tenure which I think is quite brave.
He states the point beautifully:
While university administrators may be implementing this program with the best of intentions, coercing Penn State employees to undergo medical testing and requiring that they disclose personal medical information to a third-party online database is ethically indefensible. University employees should respond accordingly.
He acknowledges that a full boycott is unrealistic because some faculty members simply can’t afford a $1,200 pay cut (note that the ability to insist upon one’s privacy is reserved for those who can lose $1,200.00 a year.) Not to mention that a boycott would “create an annual two million dollar windfall for the organization’s budget, thus rewarding the administration for inserting itself in our private medical affairs.”
He suggests alternatives that will allow people to participate by the letter of the program but still create an effective protest. My favorite of his ideas is for participants to get screenings at their regular doctor rather than at the mobile units (which HR assured him was allowed) because, among other reasons, “if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable.”
He also makes an excellent point that such a program would never pass the basic approval process that is required for any academic study at the university that involves humans, because they utilize coercion and do not give participants the right to opt out of questions which they find embarrassing, threatening, or too personal.
This is one of many protests and interventions of the University’s policy, all of which met with the predictable group of people who insisted that there’s no use protesting things like this.
Today Penn State backed down. They are removing the surcharge for those who don’t participate and Administrators have agreed to work with a faculty and staff task force to study alternatives for implementing the wellness program.
Obviously this is a beginning and not an end to the work to be done around these issues, but I think it’s important to remember that these things can be fought and progress can be made. Obamacare does a lot of things that I appreciate (like making insurance available to me at all since I currently can’t get it because of my size) but it also allows for these kinds of carrot and stick programs – including the use of body size measurement as health measurements – so I expect we have many more of these fights ahead of us, but if we employ consistent activism and creative civil disobedience, I believe we can win.
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