Drastic spike in employee health insurance costs ignites anxiety

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Photo: Emerson College/Courtesy

Emerson professor Gian Lombardo said he wished the college had included employee unions in health care price talks.

By Maxwell Carter, State House Reporter

Staff and faculty union leaders are expressing concerns after the Human Resources department announced in October that health insurance renewal costs for 2020 would increase by 16.8 percent. 

Faculty and staff union leaders say salaries won’t rise fast enough to cover the increased costs and cite a lack of union representation in the announcement while Human Resources representatives cannot confirm if renewal rates will continue to increase in the coming years, citing the irresponsible nature of guessing. 

“Effectively, for full-time faculty, it wipes out their cost-of-living wage raise for next year,” President of the Emerson College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors Gian Lombardo said in an interview. “It’s a measure that they are not getting ahead—that they are, in some ways, being put behind.”

Human Resources Senior Associate Vice President Shari Stier said the college’s health care plans averaged a 7-percent increase over the past five years, including this year’s drastic uptick. She said she hopes costs will go down again next year and emphasized that the average is still below the industry average of 9 percent.

“This is new terrain for Emerson,” Stier said in an interview. “We’ve had rich plans and low rates until now, but it is in Emerson’s best interest not to increase renewals because we pay 75 percent of it.”

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Lombardo and leaders of the other three employee unions said they had the first of what they hope to be regular meetings with human resources to discuss how to manage such developments in the future on Nov. 19. 

“Nobody from any of the unions were going in looking for heads,” Chair of the Service Employees International Union at Emerson Dennis Levine said. “That was not the intent of the meeting. That’s not what this is about. The intent is to understand some more, find out why things were done the way they were, and come up with a way we can work with administration and management to possibly alleviate potential problems down the road.”

The sharp increase for 2020 is the result of a few expensive health care claims that far exceeded the college’s insurance fund in 2019. A relatively low number of inexpensive claims have kept premium costs fluctuating between 1 and 6 percent over the past few years, according to data provided by human resources. 

Instead of raising health costs for individuals who make expensive claims, Emerson spreads the spike across the college’s entire network, Steir told The Beacon—raising premiums for all employees. This strategy is meant to lighten the load on those in need of more care, but means premiums will still go up for those who don’t make a single claim if others in the network use the coverage more than usual.

Emerson pays for care on a claim-by-claim basis from a fund they control rather than paying a lump sum to their network provider, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. The fund is sourced from employees’ and the school’s yearly renewal fees, which are calculated based on expenses from previous years. The less money spent on health care in a given year, the lower the renewal fees are likely to be in the next. If costs exceed the money set aside to cover claims in a fiscal year, as they did in 2019, renewal fees will go up to match those costs expected in the new year.

The all-faculty meetings to explain the cost to faculty and staff were scheduled the morning of Oct. 22—the same day profesor Moses Shumow died in a train accident. Despite the gravity of Shumow’s death, human resource representatives decided to move forward with the presentation they had prepared. Stier said there was no time to wait with open enrollment for health care plans just two weeks away.

Director of Programming in the Visual Media Arts Department Anna Feder said she was immediately worried about colleagues she knew who were already struggling emotionally and would be hit hardest economically. 

She said she spoke out during the human resource department’s presentation.

“This is all really disturbing,” Feder said in the interview. “I mean, not that I’m expecting them to answer for our health care system, but this conversation, it was just so impersonal and dehumanizing.”

Administrative Associate to the Chair of the Journalism Department Christopher Wilson said some faculty and staff concerns go beyond financial questions and communication breakdowns. Some are worried that the college’s interest in keeping prices low might stigmatize those who use their health care more than others.

“Would they discriminate against someone in hiring or firing because of illness or health?” Wilson said in an interview.

Stier said she is aware of fears that the school might cut down on health care costs by pushing out chronically ill, disabled, or elderly employees, or by discouraging them from applying. She said healthcare is there for people to use it and said punishing individuals that need and use the coverage is nearly impossible as a result of medical confidentiality laws.

“Even if people think we would, we couldn’t,” she said. “We are legally bound not to make plan decisions based on that information.”

Lombardo said he wished the process had involved unions before Emerson announced the decision unilaterally. He added that unions could have helped in terms of communicating with employees at the school. 

“There was a lag between finding out when this was happening in August and being told in October,” Lombardo said in an interview. “There was a good amount of time where the unions could have been called in and conferred with in advance.”

Levine said most staff didn’t find out until a few days after the Oct. 22 all-faculty meeting. 

“We had gotten word from the faculty after the meeting, but it was like a day or two days later when the email went out to everybody,” Levine said in an interview. “As soon as that email came up, our email was lighting up like a Christmas tree, you know? It’s like, what’s going on?” 

Stier admitted the delay between alerting faculty and staff could have been avoided, but refuted claims that the human resources department delayed the announcement intentionally.

The department sent the initial email to faculty and staff as soon as the Board of Trustees approved the increase, Stier said. The college finalized the plan around a month after the school completed negotiations with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and less than two weeks before enrollment for 2020 health care plans opened on Nov. 4.