Amid doubts about health benefits, officials roll out new plan

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Vice President for Human Resources Sabrina Ellis unveiled an updated health care benefits plan for faculty and staff in a Faculty Senate meeting on Friday.

Updated: Sept. 14, 2015 at 3:20 p.m.

Officials laid out an updated health care benefits plan for employees at a Faculty Senate meeting Friday.

The multi-pronged benefits plan, that is planned to launch in January, makes changes to the current plan like adding a dollar-for-dollar match on the amount that employees pay into certain health insurance plans and the ability to talk to doctors and clinicians by phone to get prescriptions for minor illnesses.

At the Friday meeting, at least nine faculty members expressed appreciation for the University’s top officials being transparent about staff benefits, but still shared concerns on how fair the employee benefits will be.

Benefits for employees have dominated conversation among staffers for the past year after officials trimmed employee tuition benefits by 6 percent last fall. University President Steven Knapp assembled a task force last winter to address faculty and staff members’ concerns about their benefits — but he chose to enact only one of the group’s short-term recommendations in May.

Sabrina Ellis, the vice president for human resources, explained the “hot-button topic” of employee benefits on Friday at a Faculty Senate meeting and outlined the updated health care plan that will roll out in January.

She said the amount GW spends on employees’ health insurance will rise by 8 percent next year, or $3.4 million, which is higher than the national average yearly increase. She said that GW will also put an additional $2.4 million toward insurance benefits.

“This has been a year where we have engaged in much more conversation than we have certainly since I’ve been here, and they’re very robust discussions,” Ellis said at the meeting.

The University’s health benefits came under scrutiny when insurance premiums rose by nearly 25 percent in 2012. Knapp announced in June he would keep health premiums, or the amount an individual contributes to insurance each year, at about 3 percent.

But employees’ concerns about the University’s approach to benefits remain. During Friday’s meeting, faculty questioned the validity of a second study analyzing GW’s benefits, saying that it included institutions that are not financially comparable to the University because they are not located in an urban area or lack a cost of living to similar to D.C.

GW’s benefits package for employees is just about average compared to its peer institutions, according to a report published last week — the second such report to come out in the past three months.

Benjamin Hopkins, an associate professor of history and international affairs and a member of the Benefits Task Force, said at the meeting that the report published last week looks at a wide scope of universities, but a report the task force released earlier this year only looked at peer institutions located in areas similar to D.C. with comparable costs.

“We opted for a smaller subset of appropriately located universities both in high-cost living areas but also high-cost in health care areas,” Hopkins said.

In a message sent to members of the Faculty Association, faculty leaders of the organization said the report doesn’t address many of the association’s questions about benefits.

“We have asked [University officials] to request from its consultant a revised report that compares equivalent health insurance plans, but the GW administration rushed out its flawed report in an effort to suppress the anticipated backlash against the huge 15 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent (depending on one’s salary) health insurance premium increases for many GW employees that were announced Tuesday,” the message read.

Knapp said in Friday’s meeting that the task force was created with an eye toward clarity, a route on which he intends to continue.

“Whatever the task force wants to recommend, we will consider,” he said. “I want it to be highly transparent.”

Philip Wirtz, a professor of decision sciences and psychology in the School of Business, said the transparency at the Friday meeting was “unusual,” but added that he’s concerned about whether it’s fair that increasing costs for benefits are being taken on by employees more than the University.

“This seems to me to be a trend that’s spiraling somewhat out of control,” Wirtz said. “Is there any thought given that the University and the employees should be equally absorbing the responsibility here?”

Harald Griesshammer, an associate professor of theoretical nuclear physics, said at the meeting that communication between administrators and employees has come a long way in recent years, but he is concerned about whether the changes for which employees are rallying will ever reach the Board of Trustees – the body that can approve the decision to increase funding for benefits.

Griesshammer added that the University might be producing reports until they’re satisfied with the results.

“There was a certain outcome desired and there were reports requested until the correct outcome was reached,” he said.

He said in an interview that the report published last week can help illustrate what the board should do to adjust employee benefits.

“Does the board know about the short-term report of the president’s task force?” he said in the interview. “I do not know whether they have that. The president, as far as I know, has not gone out and shown it to anybody actually.”

Ellie Smith and Jacqueline Thomsen contributed reporting.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
Due to outdated information on a business school website, Hatchet incorrectly reported that Philip Wirtz is vice dean for programs and education. He no longer holds that title.

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