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March 16, 1995

Opposition to single health care provider on campus increases

As Pitt administrators consider various options for employee health benefits, a growing number of faculty and staff members are saying: Don't give any company a monopoly on health insurance here.

University administrators are weighing the merits of several health care options for the fiscal year that begins July 1, including:

* Signing a three-year "exclusive provider" contract with Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania, thus eliminating HealthAmerica here.

* Keeping Blue Cross and HealthAmerica but freezing enrollments in the latter.

* Maintaining the status quo, continuing to accept new members in both companies' plans.

The first option isn't popular among Pitt personnel, judging from the preliminary results of a Human Resources survey of faculty and staff opinions of Pitt fringe benefits.

Of the 4,000 responses tallied so far, 76 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "The University is better off with only one company as its health insurance provider." Only 11 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. The remaining 13 percent gave neutral responses.

The survey, commissioned and funded by the Office of Human Resources, is being prepared by Audrey Murrell, associate professor in the Katz Graduate School of Business, in conjunction with the University Center for Social and Urban Research.

As of March 7, 4,678 surveys out of 7,979 mailed had been returned, a 60 percent response rate. Human Resources is expected to publish the final survey results as a supplement to a future issue of the University Times.

On March 14, Faculty Assembly voted 26-0 to approve a resolution recommending that the University make no changes in its medical insurance options.

The resolution also declared that banning future Pitt enrollments in HealthAmerica is not a viable option. Herb Chesler, chairperson of the University Senate benefits and welfare committee that proposed the resolution, argued that freezing HealthAmerica enrollments would take away the company's incentive to minimize its own rate increases and its competitive clout in influencing Blue Cross to hold down its rates. HealthAmerica would steadily lose subscribers as employees left the University or switched to Blue Cross plans. Inevitably, HealthAmerica itself would leave the University, Chesler said.

At its March 20 meeting, Senate Council is scheduled to consider the Assembly-approved resolution.

At the Assembly meeting, Chesler noted that six of the 15 members of Pitt's Medical Review Committee voted for the "freeze HealthAmerica" option last month. Five other committee members voted for the status quo. Four voted for a Blue Cross monopoly.

The committee, an advisory group of faculty, staff and administrators from Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), did not discuss the "freeze" option before voting, Chesler said. If it had, the committee probably would have rejected the option entirely, he said.

But instead, according to Chesler, he and most other committee members initially saw the "freeze HealthAmerica" option as a compromise between two extremes: the status quo (which Pitt medical center officials claim will have a dire impact on UPMC and Pitt's Health Sciences schools) and a Blue Cross monopoly (with its promised savings of millions of dollars on Pitt's health insurance premiums — but also the loss of a competing health insurer on campus and the inconvenience to current HealthAmerica subscribers, most of whom would have to switch to new primary care physicians).

At the Medical Review Committee's most recent meeting on March 10, committee member Darlene Harris unsuccessfully requested a second vote on the three health insurance options.

Harris, who is president of the Staff Association Council (SAC), said she wanted to change her original vote.

In an interview, Harris said she explained to the committee that she had based her initial vote — to freeze HealthAmerica enrollments — on her own opinion.

"Darlene Lewis [associate vice chancellor for Human Resources] told the committee that we should vote as individuals, not as if we were representing constituencies. But I wouldn't be on the [Medical Review] Committee unless I was an elected officer of SAC," Harris said. "I was reminded by SAC members that I should vote the way my constituents wanted me to vote. But by then it was too late." Harris said she believes that "an overwhelming majority" of staff oppose changing Pitt's current health insurance options, based on the preliminary results of the benefits opinion survey and feedback she has received as SAC president.

While the Medical Review Committee rejected Harris's request for a new vote, a majority of members agreed during the March 10 meeting to recommend that Pitt continue to offer more than one health insurance vendor, according to Harris and Chesler.

As for SAC, the staff group voted 13-8 on March 8 to oppose any changes in employee benefits "before appropriate consultation with all governance groups occurs.

"Be it resolved that this opposition includes any proposal to exclude or limit HealthAmerica as a medical insurance provider or to implement a cafeteria style benefits package without further discussion and review." According to Harris, the resolution was a compromise resulting from SAC's desire to cover all potential benefits changes. "I can guarantee you that nobody on SAC wants the current health insurance options touched," Harris said. "They don't want sole provider status for Blue Cross; they don't want to freeze HealthAmerica enrollments." The group's benefits committee approved a resolution to that effect prior to the March 8 SAC meeting, she said.

The SAC and Faculty Assembly resolutions, along with the benefits survey results, will be included in a package of materials that will be sent to Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor in late March regarding Blue Cross and HealthAmerica.

The chancellor and the Board of Trustees will make the final decision on any benefits changes for the fiscal year, which begins July 1.

— Bruce Steele

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