Faculty call for GW to increase health insurance contribution

Media Credit: Anne McBride | Hatchet Photographer
Robert Harrington, a professor of electrical engineering, was one of the Faculty Senate members who proposed a resolution to increase faculty’s health benefits during Friday’s Faculty Senate meeting.

The Faculty Senate unanimously passed a resolution on Friday calling on GW to increase the amount it gives faculty and staff to defray the costs of health insurance.

Faculty called on GW to cover about 75 percent of health insurance costs – meaning employees would pay for no more than 25 percent. The resolution is a change from the current system, where employees pay roughly 30 percent of their health care costs.

The resolution comes after a yearslong battle over employee benefits. The University announced it would increase health benefits at a fixed rate of 3 percent per year, which is less than the amount the costs have risen each year. GW also scaled back tuition benefits for employees in 2014 by 6 percent.

Philip Wirtz, a member of the Faculty Senate committee that wrote the resolution, said the change would put GW back in line with precedent, when it covered 75 percent of healthcare costs. Harrington said the problem with a fixed 3 percent increase is faculty have to fill in the gap – health insurance costs increase 6 percent each year.

“As a result the staff and faculty of GW have had to absorb a fairly significant burden of health care costs,” Wirtz said.

The University spends $120 million on benefits each year, and a third of those funds goes toward health benefits, said Robert Harrington, the chair of the committee that wrote the measure.

Brian Biles, a member of the benefits advisory committee, which makes recommendations on staff benefits to the administration, said other large employers have matched their benefits increase to the rate of healthcare cost increases.

“The University has tied the increase in University contribution to the increase in compensation or salary,” Biles said. “And that’s an approach that virtually no other large employer follows.”

In September, officials introduced a new health care benefits plan that included a dollar-for-dollar match on amounts staff pay for certain plans.

Two years ago, members of the Faculty Senate asked administrators to increase the budget for health care costs more than they did for merit raises as a way to limit staff members’ out-of-pocket payments.

Joseph Cordes, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s finance committee, said that while the resolution states a clear objective, funding still needs to be found to make it work.

“We used to say budget folks are like skunks at a picnic,” Cordes said. “We’re typically there to give bad news and tell people about constraints, and I suspect that’s going to happen here too.”

Benefits first became a concern when insurance premiums shot up by 18 percent in 2012, and University President Steven Knapp promised to cap rising costs at 3 percent at the time.

“It’s been said before, and it will probably be said again,” Benjamin Hopkins, a member of the Faculty Senate, said after the meeting. “And they’ve ignored it before, and they’ll probably ignore it again.”

A third-party report released in September found that GW fell in the middle of its peer institutions for benefits, contradicting a faculty-issued report from three months earlier that found the University needed to improve its offerings.

In the weeks leading up to the Faculty Senate meeting, the Faculty Association, an alternative body to the Faculty Senate, had passed around a petition asking the University to increase its contribution to health insurance benefits.

Andrew Zimmerman, the president of the Faculty Association, said the group started the petition as a follow-up to a similar petition two years ago, which also asked the University to increase its contributions to benefits. Nothing changed as a result of the first petition.

“What we are concerned about is that we feel that the University is passing on more than its fair share of health insurance increases to the faculty,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what we’re protesting against, so we’re hoping that the University will listen to the faculty and pay more, contribute more to benefits.”

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