Task force contemplates health-insurance options

by Erin Ghere

Equal pay for equal work was introduced more than 20 years ago, but some University employees are concerned that the University’s benefit plans discriminate against singles.
Under the University’s current health insurance plan, single employees receive less health compensation than married employees, a situation that’s making some people very unhappy.
“Some companies realize it is unfair to discriminate based on marital status,” said Brent Woodward, a University animal scientist. “Married employees … at the University get a lot of benefits that single people don’t get.”
Because faculty and staff members have had concerns with their insurance coverage, the University established a task force in 1997 to find other options.
Richard McGehee, task force chairman, said the committee is focusing on seven priority issues. Mainly the committee is trying to expand coverage to mental health, domestic partners, early retirees and users outside the metro area. The task force is also attempting to lower premiums, improve access to University providers and provide an option to refuse state health insurance.
The task force expects to make a recommendation to the University next fall.
But change might be difficult.
University suggestions to offer a more equitable insurance plan have thus far been rejected by the State of Minnesota Employee Group Insurance Program. The University has been a part of the state’s insurance plan program since 1967.
In addition, the state’s Joint Labor/Management Committee, which includes three University members, studied the plan last year, concluding that no major changes would be made in the next two years.
The cafeteria plan
About 10 years ago, University officials tried to organize a cafeteria plan of insurance benefits, McGehee said. The plan would have let employees choose from a wide array of insurance options, making compensation more equitable.
Every employee would have received the same benefits regardless of their marital status, said Robert Fanhorst, interim director of employee benefits. Under the plan, employees could have purchased medical-, dental- and life-insurance plans unique to their situations. If employees didn’t use their entire allotments, they could have turned in the remainder for reimbursement.
Beth Zemsky, director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Program Office, said she supports a cafeteria-type plan because domestic partners are not eligible under the state’s healthinsurance plan.
“It would solve a number of issues,” Zemsky said.
Besides being fairer for single employees and domestic partners, the cafeteria plan would cover elderly parents or children from a spouse’s previous marriage, she said. Additionally, married faculty members who are already covered through their spouse’s plan could opt out of University health insurance, saving themselves and the University money.
But it is not profitable for the state plan to allow employees to opt out of medical insurance, Fanhorst said.
And although this health-insurance plan would have equally compensated all employees — both single and married, state officials would not allow it, McGehee said.
Kathleen Burek, assistant commissioner of the state department that administers the insurance program, said the University is just one of the state’s many clients, and an additional plan could not be created only to fit the University’s needs.
The state has customized some details for the University, but Burek said her department could not offer two different plans. An option to choose no insurance was also rejected by the state, Fanhorst said.
Although this cafeteria plan is not one of the alternate options, McGehee said the task force will consider aspects of it.
“They would certainly have it on the table for discussion,” McGehee said.
Other concerns
While a cafeteria-type plan might address some employee concerns, it would ignore other issues.
Concerns including high costs and more flexibility would not be addressed under the plan. In addition, domestic partners would still not be covered under the cafeteria plan.
Although it would address the issues of more equitable compensation from the University, “the cafeteria plan is not a total solution to the problem,” Fanhorst said. Zemsky agreed, saying universal health care would be ideal.
But even though the University cannot make changes without state approval, there are also University-based reasons why a cafeteria-type plan could not be implemented now.
First, the University does not have a computer system capable of handling employee insurance-benefits options. But PeopleSoft, the University’s new computer system, might be able to handle the workload.
Additionally, a cafeteria-type plan could cost the University millions of dollars, more than the University can afford spend, Fanhorst said.
But Zemsky said the larger issue is how benefits are provided around the country and not just at the University.
“Both laws and policies are instituted with the goal of a social policy,” she said. This social policy assumes traditional family units, she said.
Employees with questions about health benefits can attend the annual health and benefits fair for faculty and staff members on Oct. 26 and 27.

Erin Ghere covers faculty and welcomes comments at eghere@daily.umn.edu. She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3217.