University pauses controversial changes to retiree medical insurance coverage

Dora Kreitzer, Contributing Writer

After significant opposition from retired faculty and current employees, in an email from President John Bravman last Thursday, the University retracted their August decision to switch retiree health care benefits from group to individual policies in 2022.

Previously, and without consulting faculty in their decision, University administration decided to partner with Aon Health Exchange for retiree healthcare instead of continuing with Highmark for 2022. This decision would eliminate group health coverage and reduce the University’s contributions to beneficiaries’ plans. 

Retirees objected to both the manner in which these changes were made and the substance of the changes themselves. 

According to the Faculty Handbook, “proposed changes in benefit policy are reviewed by the Committee on Faculty and Academic Personnel and by the University Faculty before submission to the Board of Trustees for adoption.” 

However, in this case, the faculty at large were not consulted, nor was a faculty committee. Instead, retirees were notified of the changes through letters from Human Resources without any opportunity for input.

Additionally, the Faculty Handbook said, “previously covered employees and previously covered eligible dependents have access to group health insurance coverage, including cost sharing, in a special Medicare supplemental program after age 65. Eligibility for this coverage is in effect for the retiring faculty member for the remainder of his/her lifetime.” 

By “unilaterally implementing the announced changes in retirees’ health benefits, [the University] has broken the trust it had with its retired employees – who did not expect to be treated this way and who do not deserve to be treated this way,” Dr. Stephen Becker, Emeritus Associate Professor of Physics, said in a Oct. 13 letter to President Bravman. “I would also note that breaking such trust with retired [University] employees will also generate trust problems between [the University] and its current employees – who will have a much reduced expectation that they will be treated fairly both as current employees and when they retire.”

On top of the way in which administration went about changing retiree insurance policy, the substance changes were also distressing to retired faculty. 

“I was appalled, horrified, terrified and deeply disappointed in the proposal,” former chemistry professor Dr. John Coleman said. “My base support was cut 60 percent, with a one-time ‘bonus’ that brought the package up to only 30 percent cut for the first year. But the loss of the group plan made individual plans much more expensive than under the group plan. Net result: ‘affordable’ plans left my family exposed; plans comparable to what we had enjoyed for the previous 18 years were flat unaffordable.”

According to Dr. Becker, in 2023 retirees would have to pay an additional $1,700 per person on average for similar coverage to their current plan, which is approximately the amount by which the University is reducing its contribution. The change in providers would have a larger detrimental impact on older retired faculty, as they would also be charged an individual premium based on age.

It is worth noting that, though Dr. Becker wrote on behalf of some retired faculty, he was not able to contact most non-faculty retirees because one of the vice presidents refused him permission to use the University’s listserv, an online database that included contact information for many of these employees.

“Many of our older retirees are in poor health and in any case may be ill-equipped to deal with such complex decisions, much of it done online,” Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Dr. John Peeler said. “In addition, in my own case I found that all available plans predicted my out of pocket costs for medications at $90,000!”

“Although I was later reassured by Human Resources that a Catastrophic reimbursement account would cover those costs, it was still jarring, since under our current group plan I have had much smaller (not negligible) copays. This is not the only issue where the current administration has made policies, affecting current faculty and staff as well as retirees, without the consultation that is a mark of good management.  In the case of the Faculty, such consultation is mandated by the Faculty Handbook,” Peeler said. 

After Becker’s letter comprising an outpour of comments of dissatisfaction on the faculty listserv, a review of the evolution of retiree healthcare and individual conversations between President Bravman, retirees and the Board of Trustees, the University paused the transition in retiree Medicare plans. 

“While a transition away from Highmark would have resulted in more plan choices and better value for many of our retirees, and while many could also have benefited from the $2,000 prescription drug cap, I believe that the transition to an individual retiree exchange model requires further review,” President Bravman said in an email to University faculty on Monday.

Moving forward, President Bravman has guaranteed that retirees and their eligible dependents will have access to Highmark Medicare plans through at least 2022. Additionally, he plans to form a Retiree Health Commission, made up of appointed retiree representatives, current employees, and members of the Board of Trustees. 

“This commission will examine various healthcare coverage options available to our retirees, including group and individual plans, and will make recommendations for plan year 2023 and beyond,” Bravman said. 

Dr. Becker was “pleased” that administrators decided to halt their plans to switch plans for the next year. 

Dr. Coleman expressed similar gratitude, saying, “When you’re up to your neck in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging!  Next, repair the damage.”

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