Guild makes health insurance proposal

The Guild on Friday proposed a redesign of health insurance that preserves affordable coverage for members while saving The Buffalo News a significant amount of money.

The proposal calls for moving to what’s known as a “low-deductible” health plan that requires some cost-sharing by participants but not premium-sharing.

The key elements of the plan are as follows:

–Employees would pay a certain amount out of pocket in a year – the deductible – for hospitalizations, outpatient surgery, lab testing, and certain X-ray and imaging. The proposal calls for a deductible of $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families.

–Once employees spend up to the deductible in a year, they would pay 20 percent of the cost for hospitalizations and the other services up to an annual maximum of $2,500 for individuals or $5,000 for families. The deductible and 20 percent cost-sharing do not apply to basic services.

–A host of preventive services would be fully covered, including well-child office visits, routine lab work, routine X-ray, immunizations, pap smears and cervical exams, prostate exams, colonoscopies and mammograms. There also would be a more expensive “buy up” health plan for members with no cost-sharing, similar to the pair of health plans currently offered.

–Doctor visits would cost $30 for primary care and $45 for specialists. Members would be able to keep their current physicians. Prescriptions would be priced at $10/$30/$50.

The Guild sought prices from three health insurers for a low-deductible plan: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York, Independent Health and the United Furniture Workers Insurance Fund.

Independent Health declined to offer a quote until mid-July, when it could get medical usage statistics for the Guild for the first quarter of 2011. Of the two other insurers, United Furniture Workers offered a plan that, by far, was the most attractively priced.

The United Furniture Workers Insurance Fund is a national health plan that sells insurance to employees associated with the Communication Workers of America. The Newspaper Guild merged into CWA in 1997. The Nashville, Tenn.-based Fund is regulated by the federal government – not state government — as is the case with most insurers.

The fund sells insurance policies through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee and, as with all Blues plans, participants get access to Blue Cross Blue Shield’s national network, just as we do now through our insurance with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York.

The fund is able to sell insurance at an attractive price for a variety of reasons. It does not spend millions of dollars on advertising or high salaries. More importantly, there are a handful of cost-saving benefit changes that the Guild found acceptable, such as coverage of dependents to age 26 instead of 29, and no coverage for fertility treatment.

Other employers that use United Furniture Workers include the Guild bargaining units at the Chicago Sun Times and Delaware County Times, Steinway & Sons, Crawford Furniture, and Sealy Mattress. Additionally, the Buffalo Newspaper Guild provides coverage for its local service representative, Tammy Turnbull, through the fund.

“I’ve talked to several Guild members and officers who have their insurance through the Furniture Workers plan,” said Marian Needham, the national union staff representative working with the local bargaining team.  “Uniformly, they have been satisfied with the quality of coverage and customer service they get from the plan.”

It’s important for everyone to understand that some change in health insurance is inevitable.

Under a clause in our contract, the News will no longer have to pay the full cost of our base health insurance plan after Dec. 31, 2011, unless The Guild and The News negotiate an alternative agreement. Without an alternative agreement, the company’s health insurance obligation after Dec. 31, 2011, is to provide only enough money to pay the current cost of the 2011 base health plan plus small annual increases.

If we don’t obtain a change in the clause or an alternative arrangement, employees will pay the difference between the cost of the insurance and what the company provides. The amount Guild employees pay will quickly reach thousands of dollars a year, then tens of thousands.

The Guild avoided problems over the past decade by working to redesign our health plan to lower the company’s cost. Over the years, we have accepted a hospital deductible and higher copayments for care in our base-option plan. But the price of insurance has continued to rise, and we are running out of easy ways to redesign the health plan.

The News rejected an initial Guild proposal to provide enough health credits each year to cover the cost of the current base-option health plan, so the Guild followed up on Friday with a three-year proposal to move to the United Furniture Workers plan.

The Guild proposal also calls for The News to recognize the crushing financial consequences of the problematic insurance clause. It calls on the News to provide health care credits each year equal to the cost of a base-option health plan.

“At a minimum, we have an opportunity to solve the dilemma of health insurance for a few years in a way that’s good for both the Guild and The News. It preserves affordable insurance, saves the company money and takes off the bargaining table one of the most potentially divisive issues,” said Henry Davis, president of the Guild.

In other matters, the Guild and News are continuing to work on an agreement that would allow select editorial employees — at management’s discretion — to return in a part-time role following the ongoing voluntary separation. A potential agreement, which would apply only to workers who take this buyout, remains stuck over the issue of work assignments.

The Guild is concerned that allowing beat reporters to return part time will lead to part-time coverage of beats and a decline in quality. We proposed that beat reporters who return part time come back as general assignment reporters who, within reason, can be assigned stories in their former beats along with other types of stories.

News management objected to that idea, saying that it has the exclusive right to assign stories to reporters and that the Guild proposal constituted an infringement on that right. Under our contract, The News does not have the ability to assign part-timers to beats because where a full-time staffing need exists, the contract currently says the company must fill the position with a full-time employee.

The News also attempted to clarify some confusion over the threat of layoffs.

A number of the nine remaining full-time district managers have voiced concern that they believe they will be laid off if they do not accept a voluntary separation. They want to know if this is true, so that they can plan for the future.

The News told the Guild that it can’t offer a definitive answer as it attempts to cut $1.8 million in Guild payroll and benefits. The company said it will conduct the current pension-based buyout and then will consider whether to offer a cash-based buyout of employees. It also has talked of seeking wage concessions during contract talks. All of this must take place, officials said, before the company will consider whether to make a declaration of economic instability, as required by the contract, to conduct layoffs.

“It is highly premature to say layoffs are imminent or likely at this point,” said News Vice President of Human Resources Dan Farberman.

Finally, bargaining team member Geoff Nason was promoted last week to the management position of digital editor and has left the team.

Geoff was a major contributor to the bargaining team and will be missed. We wish him all the best in his new endeavor. He will be replaced by reporter Aaron Besecker.

Guild and News negotiators are taking a previously agreed-upon break until July 19 for scheduled vacations and the CWA convention.