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New health care programs cause worry among staff

October 25, 2007

On Nov. 5, the faculty and staff of UW-River Falls have a tough decision to make.

A change in the health care system has left many scrambling for information and searching for answers regarding each of the three providers which they must choose from:  Humana West, Anthem and the Standard Plan, also referred to as the Wisconsin Physician Service (WPS).

However, these options do not cover visits to doctors or specialists in Minnesota, Faculty Senate Chair David Rainville said. Only Anthem covers a small amount of providers in St. Louis County.

“This poses an incredible hardship on people, as most specialist providers are in Minnesota and the Twin Cities,” he said. “This is clearly a major inconvenience.” 

Rainville said about 40 percent of the faculty and staff at UWRF live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, which means that they will have to find new family practice and specialist doctors.

Along with choosing a new provider, faculty and staff—including administration personnel, professors and even janitors—must also choose how much coverage they want. The three options are distinguished by Tier 1, which is the least amount of coverage; Tier 2, which is broader coverage; and Tier 3, which is the most extensive and expensive coverage.

“About four or five years ago, the faculty had Tier 2 coverage, which meant that they could see any doctor, physician or specialist in Wisconsin or Minnesota. It was a really good package,” Stephen Olsen, chair of the Faculty Compensation Committee, said. “Basically, out of the blue, the new plans came out and revealed that Tier 1 and Tier 2 plans no longer include any Minnesota providers, including doctors, hospitals, specialists or physical therapists.”

Olsen said the new Tier 1 option expands coverage, as long as a person doesn’t get sick enough to have to go to Minnesota for treatment, as the closest major Wisconsin facility with specialists is in Marshfield, nearly a two and-a-half hour drive from River Falls. This rings especially true with Rainville, as he has had surgery four times already this year.

“This will now force me to have to find a new doctor,” he said.

According to a state-published guide regarding these changes, the Tier 1 family plan costs $68/month, the Tier 2 family plan $150/month and the Tier 3 option $358/month.

“Faculty salaries at UW-River Falls are among the lowest in the system,” Rainville said. “And the cost of living in this area is the highest in Wisconsin.”

“It isn’t just the state trying to screw us, it’s the cost, too,” Olsen added.

The Employee Trust Fund (ETF) is the organization overseeing the health insurance changes, which affects all people employed by the state of Wisconsin. Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Mary Halada received a letter from ETF on Aug. 31 notifying her of the changes. However, she said she is not fond of the new plans, as many people will have to switch from their lifelong family doctors.

“Certainly continuity of care is huge,” she said. “But we have to make a decision.”

Faculty and staff are also upset with the distribution of insurance providers by county. A map included in the state-published guide shows that there are four Tier 1 options in Dane County, which includes Madison.

“The problem happens to lie with us because of this county,” Olsen said. “This is a major devastation of health inequality. Everybody isn’t suffering equally.”

“I think that the state folks who determine these plans for us don’t understand our area,” Halada said.

On Oct. 17, there was a faculty health fair in Hagestad Hall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Representatives from each of the three providers were on hand to address the faculty and staff, who were encouraged to submit questions and concerns.

Noticeably absent from the fair was ETF, who was planning on attending but backed out at the last minute, offering instead to participate via teleconference. However, after doing the same at other UW System schools, UWRF faculty thought it would be pointless if they could not be there in person.

“Their (ETF’s) performance in this matter is irresponsible,” Rainville said. “It’s insensitive. Decisions that were made regarding these providers were made by ETF. My opinion is that they did not want to come here to face the music.”

“Part of our problem has been to educate staff and faculty members, which is why we had the health fair,” he said. “ETF is giving conflicting information, and frequently misinformation.”

Olsen also noted that the health insurance issue ties into the Wisconsin budget crisis because by cutting off Minnesota doctors, hospitals and clinics, they have kept revenue within the state.

“There’s no impetus for them to help us,” he said. “Governor Doyle is the only person who can say that this is unacceptable and fix it.” 

Halada said that through the efforts of the governor’s office, a teleconference with ETF was scheduled earlier this week.

Aside from being an inconvenience and putting financial strains on faculty and staff, the health insurance changes could also have a far greater impact on UWRF.

“The main effect that we will see at this University is faculty will be leaving,” Rainville said. “The change in benefits makes it impossible for many to bear.”

Nonetheless, the faculty and staff of UWRF will be forced to make an important decision in less than two weeks.

“This thing is a nightmare, and right now it doesn’t look like anything is going to change,” Olsen said. “I’ve been here 11 years, and I’ve never seen anything devastate the campus like this. This one’s a deal breaker.”

According to a press release by Chancellor Don Betz, a motion was passed at the Oct. 24 Faculty Senate meeting to put forth a petition from all faculty and staff to Gov. Doyle, the board of regents and UW System President Kevin Reilly, voicing their disappointments with insurance options.