Utask force calls for new health care provider

by Sam Kean

An employee committee Thursday recommended the University break away from its current health care provider, citing a lack of options and the absence of benefits for domestic partners.
The University Health Plan Task Force made four recommendations to the Faculty Senate after a year of researching employee satisfaction and needs. Pending approval from the senate, the HPTF will present the recommendations to the Board of Regents in December.
The University is currently insured by the state of Minnesota.
However, the University has no power over the details of the plans the state offers; this power lies with the Department of Employee Relations. Until recently, DOER offered five cost-effective plans.
As a result of spiking health care costs, the state dropped a few plans in recent years. Task force chairman and University math professor Richard McGehee said certain plans have attracted “too many sick people” to be cost effective for the insurers.
McGehee said the number of health plans would likely drop even further, leaving University employees few viable options.
Other problems the task force has discussed in the past include poor out-of-state coverage, lack of domestic partnership benefits and inaccessibility of employees to University health care providers.
Therefore, the HPTF recommended four changes:
ù establish a permanent Employee Benefits Advisory Committee to monitor health care plans. McGehee called this the most important recommendation;
ù secure the power to modify the details of the benefits packages;
ù offer a diverse number of plans that reflect employees’ needs and remain stable;
ù extend the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners that married employees now receive.
The task force has been involved in preliminary talks with DOER and, in principle, it agreed to the first three objectives. But, DOER admitted it has no power to modify any plan to include domestic partnership benefits without state Legislature approval. McGehee said DOER feared a legislative battle over the issue.
But, he explained, the University has a duty to honor its code of conduct, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The University currently has 175 employees registered to receive domestic partnership benefits. Of those, 22 are partially compensated for outside insurance costs by the University. Thus, the issue is not monetary, it’s political, McGehee said.
The HPTF will make the domestic partnership recommendation the first issue it presents to DOER as a litmus test to see how much autonomy the University will have.
A failure here might foretell future struggles to adopt viable health plans in a rapidly changing medical environment.
Under the assumption it will continue to have little control, the HPTF recommended the University “pursue an employee benefits package separate from that of the state.”
University President Mark Yudof said the soonest any changes could be implemented is 2002, but emphasized the University is better off now than a year ago.
McGehee declined to comment on whether the University would still break away from the state provider if the Legislature met every recommendation except the final one.
He warned, though, if no concrete changes are implemented by 2002, the University will separate the following year.