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Who Benefits When a Health Plan Pits Members Against Each Other?

Written by
and
November 23, 2019
Who Benefits When a Health Plan Pits Members Against Each Other?

Let’s say that I’m a contract instructor, and I have typical health related costs: I wear glasses, I take a prescription medication, I visit the dentist regularly, and I have two dependents. Let’s say that all adds up to $4000 a year, barring any unforeseen expensive events. If I had benefits, my employment would qualify me for coverage of certain health-related costs – prescription drugs, dental care, vision, paramedical – up to a set amount. These very normal life expenses would be paid for. But I’m a contract instructor at Trent.

Contract instructors at Trent don’t have benefits in the normal sense. They have a health reimbursement fund that they apply to, on a first-come, first-served basis, to get back as much as they can of what we spend on health care costs before the money runs out. Trent puts $30,000 per year into the fund for contract faculty, which can be used to offset the cost of basic dental, prescription drugs, eye exams/glasses/contact lenses. The maximum each person can receive is $800 per year. It doesn’t matter if you have dependents – it’s still $800 per year, for your whole family.

Even for people who don’t have significant medical costs, that’s a pretty low limit. One vision test and a new pair of glasses would wipe it out, as would a couple of long-delayed trips to the dentist. Moreover, the member submitting their receipts for eyeglasses might get the last $800 available from the $30,000 total, leaving the member who received dental treatment with a Visa bill they can’t pay.

The math is simple: of the roughly 400 eligible contract faculty each year, only about thirty-seven people can receive their full $800 before the fund depletes to zero dollars. Or if the funds are divided equally, it could roughly give $75 per member. So, it ends up being a scramble to see who can get their receipts in first. Last year, the fund was completely drained by early February, leaving absolutely nothing for those who taught from March through August.

Health reimbursement funds like Trent’s provide at least some basic coverage to contract academics, who could not possibly afford to purchase extended health insurance privately. CUPE 3908 fought hard for the coverage their members do have as a stepping stone to full benefits, knowing that it’s far from the ideal model. And that was when our membership was much smaller. As our membership has grown, the fund has not kept up, so the slice of the benefits-pie keeps getting smaller with every member.

Simply put, having a benefits plan that effectively pits members against one another to compete for coverage that won’t even last the full academic year, and cannot possibly cover every member, is a very bitter pill to swallow. And even that pill won’t be covered!

So far, just two months into the school year, more than $10,000 of the health benefits fund has been consumed already. That's over a third gone in under 20 percent of the year. That means that members don’t go to the dentist, don’t buy prescription medications, and don’t get their eyes checked. It means students are taking classes with professors who have to choose between, for example, good vision or good dental health. This is unjust treatment for an ever-expanding employee group at Trent University.

This is clearly not an ideal approach, but it’s also clear why universities in general, and Trent in particular, work this way. It is frankly cheaper to pit members against one another than to provide real, comprehensive support for their employees’ health care needs. And cheaper is the name of the game when it comes to contract academic staff.

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