Online tool to cast light on employee health care costs

Media Credit: Hatchet file photo by Dan Rich | Photo Editor

Benjamin Hopkins, an associate professor of history and international affairs, said he is wary of how helpful a new website to compare health care plans for GW employees will be. The University launched the tool after faculty were upset about changes to health insurance options.

A new online tool will help University employees calculate potential health care costs.

Castlight is a free service that will open in 2017 to employees and dependents on University health care plans. Officials who created the tool will help employees compare their health care options, learn what is covered under their plans and access simple explanations of care expenses.

The decision to launch the new program comes after faculty voiced their disapproval over GW’s new health care plans, which they said limited benefits options and increased out-of-pocket expenses. The benefits task force, a team assembled by University President Steven Knapp early in 2015, requested this type of tool in their long-term report for improving health benefits.

John Kosky, the associate vice president of human resources talent management, announced the three-year pilot of Castlight at a benefits briefing for employees earlier this month. The program is integrated with United Health Care, the University’s health care provider, and it allows anyone on the University’s plan to compare costs of physician visits, procedures and other medical necessities, he said.

“You can think of it like Amazon or, but for healthcare,” Kosky said at the briefing.

HR staff members consulted with the University’s benefits consultant when searching for potential providers like Castlight, Kosky said in an email.

“The primary benefit of the tool will be providing clear data to faculty and staff enrolled in GW’s health plan on the actual costs of health care and prescription services,” Kosky said. “This service will serve as a platform for employees to know what they can expect to spend as well as search for more cost effective options.”

Castlight will not displace any personnel who are currently responsible for managing health care benefits, he added.

Tyler Anbinder, a history professor and member of the Benefits Advisory Committee – a faculty and staff team tasked with providing HR with feedback on benefits – said the committee requested an online transparency tool but was not consulted when picking a provider for it.

“It’s really hard to know before you go to the doctor how much it’s going to cost or whether one is cheaper or more expensive than the other,” Anbinder said.

United Health Care’s website has a similar cost-comparison tool, but it isn’t user-friendly and can provide inaccurate information, Anbinder said.

A tool that helps employees decide which of the University’s two benefits plans to pick would be more useful, he added. United Health Care has staff available by phone to answer employees’ questions about plans, but those staff members are not helpful in making recommendations on specific issues, Anbinder said.

“If you ask general questions, they’ll give you general answers,” Anbinder said. “The health advocates are very wary about making recommendations even if you give them very specific info, they don’t want to be held responsible if you choose the wrong plan.”

Benjamin Hopkins, an associate professor of history and international affairs and a member of the BAC, said in an email that he and other faculty members had the sense that University officials do not take employee feedback seriously.

“For years now, the faculty, staff, Faculty Senate and president’s task force have all concluded that health benefits are underfunded and explicitly told the administration that is the case,” Hopkins said in an email. “Yet we are in our fifth year of less investment and more cuts.”

The Faculty Senate passed a resolution in April that asked GW to cover 75 percent of health care costs, compared to the 70 percent that the University currently pays for. Officials have said they will increase benefits payments by 3 percent each year, but health care costs can rise by about 6 percent annually.

Hopkins said he is wary of the new tool and the fact that online health care providers “monopolize” the data that they choose to share with customers, making pricing information opaque and confusing to them. Hopkins thinks the effect of adding CastLight will be “marginal, at best,” he said.

“One could argue, as health economists love to do, that this makes people better ‘health consumers,’” Hopkins said in an email. “People are not ‘consumers’ of health just as students are not ‘consumers’ of education. The tyranny of the market has obscured what this is all about.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.