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UAA health care option changes to be decided

Health_CareHealth care options are not just a hot button issue nationally. At this university, possible changes affecting employee health care are on the docket.

The Joint Health Care Committee proposed nine separate motions for change in October, and it took action Feb. 1 to officially endorse some of them to the university.

Among the changes are the reorganization of health care plan options, hiring vendors to compare health care costs regionally for employees, alterations to the cost of dependents on plans, and telemedicine options, among others.

Michelle Rizk, interim chief human resources officer, has until Feb. 27 to approve or deny the changes.

Rizk did not return a phone call from The Northern Light, instead referring Kate Wattum, director of public affairs for the university system, to the newspaper.

“This is kind of a final document,” Wattum said. “We don’t expect any surprises.”

She said the new changes to health care have been in the works since October, and after several employee feedback forums, were revised several times.

Ron Kamahele, director of UAA human resource services, said any motions involving policy changes could take effect by the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Other motions involving vendor hiring might take longer to implement because a company must be contracted to best meet the needs of the university.

Wattum said because these motions have not been formally passed, there are no accurate cost savings projections. She said that because the committee has officially endorsed or struck down several motions, university officials are working to complete tasks, such as creating informational literature for employees about the changes and preparing requests for proposals to find vendors for some of the motions.

 

Healthcare Fact Box

Motion 1

This motion eliminates the 500 Plan, the top-level option in a three-tier system for faculty health care. Kamele said the costs of the option, in comparison to the benefits people receive from it, do not work in the best interest of people selecting it because the cost benefit minimal. Kamahele said the plan is similar to the current middle plan, except for its higher premium with a lower deductable. WHAT IS THE MIDDLE PLAN?

A high deductible plan with a health savings account will be added instead, offering employees a third option after the 500 Plan is eliminated.

This new tier’s savings account is different than the flex spending account available in the other two options.

Flex spending accounts are funded with money deducted from one’s paycheck to cover medical costs not provided by insurance. It must be used in a yearly “use it or lose it” fashion, while the savings account is rolled over each fiscal year. Money can also be optionally taken from pay to fund the savings account not covered by the health plan, such as deductibles.

He said 4 percent of employees district wide use the 500 Plan. HOW MANY EMPLOYEES AS THAT?

 

Motion 3

Kamahele said another proposal approves the hiring of a private vendor to compare prices at multiple medical facilities throughout the region. He said no vendors are being decided upon at this timebecause the motion is not officially approved yet. He said employees were always able to independently compare prices for services, but the vendor would help make that task easier.

“That’s just not something the university was in a position to do,” he said.

 

Motion 4

This motion would provide rebates or credits to employees and their spouses who make healthy life choices resulting in continued good or improved health, such as not using tobacco and exercising regularly. Compliance is optional but results in up to 30 percent in savings for the cost of biweekly health care charges.

“The actual program would have a variety, a rather wide variety, of criteria a person could meet,” Kamahele said. Some biometric indicators used could include blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol, among many other factors.

A private vendor would be hired to monitor this program, though none have been selected yet.

Kamahele said this motion would prevent employees from developing health care problems on a long-term basis.

 

Motion 7

JHCC also voted for changes about premiums paid for children.

“Right now, there’s a family rate, and so there isn’t a distinction in what premium you pay out of your paycheck for the coverage under the plan based upon how many children you have on the plan,” Kamahele said.

This means employees are responsible for paying the same premiums regardless of the number of dependents on their health care plan. He said the family rate went into effect at this university about 10 years ago because analysis of claims history proved that children add very little cost to the health care plan. Since then, he said faculty has encouraged university officials to rethink that concept. This new health care groups the cost of coverage into ranges depending on the size of a family.

 

Motion 8

Telemedicine is also up for approval. It allows people to have the option to consult over the phone with a doctor or specialist for diagnosis or prescriptions. It also allows employees to have access to medical advice or prescription refills via telephone. Kamahele said employees who do not live in Juneau, Anchorage or Fairbanks drove this initiative.

 

Motion 9

This motion continues the Get the Point program, meant to help employees make healthier options in their diets, and keep track of their lifestyle in an efficient way.

“Employees appreciated that their employer would take these steps to help them,” Kamahele said. “Not every employer would do that.”

Kamahele said cost is the driver behind just about all of the motions. He said that while adding some of the motions to the health plan option can directly increase expenditures, the intent is to prevent long-term health conditions that are more costly and cause employees more damaging health problems.

“And so by coming up with some of these programs it’s thought, ‘We spend a little bit now, but maybe we’ll have a healthier work force in the future and avoid costs — avoid a heart attack, avoid Type 2 diabetes,’” he said.

 

Unendorsed motions

Two original motions were struck down by the JHCC, according to an email President Pat Gamble released to faculty Feb. 7.

One of them is Motion 6 and would require all faculty members to use university-provided health care with no ability to opt out.

That includes employees who are active or retired military and people of Alaska Native descent.

However, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare,  states that companies cannot deny employees an opt-out health insurance plan, allowing workers to have the option to choose the best plan for themselves.

Kamahele said the university’s general legal counsel is still interpreting the act.

“It appears, under the Affordable Care Act, opt-outs are mandatory. And so were we to enact this particular motion, well, we could do it for a year, but then it would be illegal in 2015,” Kamahele said.

The committee did not endorse this motion, and it is no longer up for consideration.

Wattum said, “They don’t want to be forced to pay insurance if they’ve already got another insurance.”

She said the committee intended to increase the pool of people paying for health insurance, thus driving individual insurance costs down. However, about 500 employees throughout the university system already had insurance and objected to this change.

Another proposal rejected by the committee was motion 5. It would have created a surcharge for employees’ spouses who have the option to buy benefits at their own job and declined to accept. The estimated cost of the surcharge was $100 per month and would not have included spouses if both work for the university or to those who do not have coverage elsewhere.

Wattum said people thought the spousal charge was unfair because it would mean some people paying more money for health care than others, while everyone would receive the same kind of benefits.

“People seem satisfied with the elimination of these two motions,” she said.

Written by J. Almendarez

J. Almendarez is a journalism junior who transferred to UAA this fall from San Antonio College, located in South Texas. At SAC, she worked at the national award winning student publication, The Ranger, as a reporter, photographer, Multimedia Editor and Executive Editor. After graduation next fall, she plans to work as a reporter for a daily in South Texas. Eventually, she would like to earn a Master's degree in Media Convergence. After a long career in journalism, she will go back to San Antonio College, teach a reporting class and die while preaching in front of a group of students about the importance of legit journalism and AP Style.