News eyes new health insurance strategy

The Guild bargaining team met last week for the first official meeting with News management at which the company presented its strategy to significantly reshape health insurance choices for all employees.

The strategy, as preliminarily envisioned by The News, could leave coverage to Guild members largely unchanged, at least for a year, while offering more health plan choices. But it’s early in a bargaining process that got a late start, and it remains uncertain how contract talks will play out.

The News had hired a consultant to look at how it could better control the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. The consultant’s work took longer than anticipated, but the result is the strategy The News unveiled in greater detail last week.

Management presents idea as contract talks with Guild begin

Currently, there are 631 employees who receive health insurance at The News spread across 19 different groups, including the Guild, unaffiliated employees and more than a dozen other unions. All these groups have their own health insurance plans – 37 different plans overall, according to the company.

The News wants to combine all employees into one common insurance pool, and offer the same five health plan choices to all employees from either Blue Cross Blue Shield or Independent Health, two Buffalo-area insurers bidding on the companywide contract.

At this initial stage of discussions, health insurance restructuring appears to be the only issue for The News. The Guild and The News have yet to officially discuss wages at a negotiating session.

But the company is talking about a one-year contract extension in which the only change would be this move to a combined insurance pool.

The News said one of the five choices would resemble the current Guild base health plan, known as Blue Cross Blue Shield POS 205, and Guild members would receive enough flexible credits to purchase that plan.

So far, the News has presented this approach to health insurance as a strategy it wants to pursue and not as an official bargaining proposal.

The strategy helps the News in a handful of ways, management said. Among other things, it decreases the rate of health insurance premium increases through more efficient administration, and it positions the company to transition to self-funded insurance. Self-funding is a method of providing health care to employees by a business taking on the financial liabilities of the care instead of paying premiums to an insurance company.

In other words, when a person covered under self-funded insurance needs medical care, the company is financially responsible for paying the medical bill after the employee pays copayments and deductibles. To protect itself against large medical claims, companies buy a special type of excess insurance coverage for claims over a pre-set amount.

While not without risks, self-funded health insurance can give employers better cash flow, tax benefits, and more flexibility over the health plans offered, including the level of benefits and the networks of doctors and hospitals. The News said it envisions moving to a pooled insurance model for 2014 with Blue Cross or Independent Health, then transitioning to self-funded insurance in 2015.

The health insurance strategy that The News presented is worth consideration, but it is also complicated. And some aspects are unacceptable.

For example, as part of this strategy, The News wants The Guild to accept only a one-year contract, meaning we would be back in contract talks quickly again in early 2014. In addition, The News wants the unilateral right to add or eliminate health insurance choices, except for the plan that becomes the Guild benchmark plan. The News also wants extensive discretion to select the network of hospitals and doctors for the combined pool’s health plan choices.

The Guild bargaining team is studying the News’ strategy and is scheduled to meet management again on Friday.

The Guild Executive Committee earlier this year named the bargaining team, which was aware of the consultant’s efforts and has been preparing for contract negotiations that were expected to focus heavily on health insurance.

The members of the team are: Guild President Henry Davis; Accounting steward Felice McMillion; Guild Treasurer Kim Leiser, representing Inside Circulation; newsroom representative Mark Sommer, vice president of contract administration; newsroom representative Aaron Besecker; Tammy Turnbull, the Guild’s local service representative; and Marian Needham, The Newspaper Guild national staff representative in Buffalo.

As the Guild did last year, representatives from other departments will be brought into negotiations if issues related to their departments arise during contract talks.