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Faculty Seek To Push Back Against Benefits Changes

By Dev A. Patel and Steven R. Watros, Crimson Staff Writers

Several members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences said they are weighing options for how best to push back against a new set of University health benefits plans they call “regressive,” even as a University spokesperson said Tuesday that the University does not plan to alter the policy for 2015.

Faculty anger over the announced plans came into focus at last Tuesday’s faculty meeting when History professor Mary D. Lewis asked University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 when and how the changes could be undone. Her question elicited applause from other faculty members in attendance and a response from Garber, outlining the changes and the rationale behind them, that some professors consider to be unsatisfactory.

Lewis said this week that while no specific action has been decided upon, “a number of faculty and exempt staff are working to plan a vigorous response.”

The issue will also be discussed at Wednesday’s meeting of the Faculty Council, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ top elected body, according to two members of the Council.

“There are lots of people thinking about what is the best way to protest,"​ History professor Alison F. Johnson, who sits on the Council, said Tuesday morning.

Johnson acknowledged that whatever action faculty members do end up taking, it is unlikely to affect benefits awarded for the current fiscal year.

In a statement Tuesday evening, University spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote that while there are indeed no planned changes for the coming year, “we continuously review our benefits packages, in consultation with the University Benefits Committee, to ensure that they remain highly competitive and affordable for faculty and staff and that they also support Harvard’s mission of teaching and research.”

University administrators announced the plan changes at the center of faculty debate earlier this fall, based on recommendations from the University Benefits Committee of faculty and administrators. The new plan introduces a $250 deductible on non-routine medical costs and a 10 percent copay beyond the deductible, up to a threshold of $1,500 per year for an individually insured policyholder or up to $4,500 for a family. The revised policy also lowers premiums.

Many professors have criticized these changes, saying that the resulting plans amount to a “pay cut” for Harvard’s thousands of non-union employees who are affected.

"I don't care if it was faculty or administrators who made this policy," Johnson said. "It's a bad policy."

Lewis said that she is particularly concerned for more financially vulnerable members of the affected group, a point she also brought up in last Tuesday’s Faculty meeting.

“If you’re making a provost’s salary, it’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “But if you’re making a junior faculty salary, it could be quite substantial.”

Classics professor Emma Dench and History professor Lisa McGirr said the policy would most hurt families and female faculty members who wish to have children while working.

Citing their own recent medical experiences, several faculty members added that given the costs incurred by emergency medical situations, the thresholds outlined in the new plans will be easily reached, and in short time spans.

“I’m literally speechless as I look for a word to describe how disappointed I am,” Johnson said. "It is a regressive tax on those least able to afford to bear the burden."

Others pointed their criticism directly at the University Benefits Committee that approved the changes, saying that a diverse group of faculty were not consulted in making the recommendations. Only one tenured member of the FAS, Government professor Daniel P. Carpenter, sat on the committee.

Sociology professor Christopher Winship, another member of the Faculty Council, wrote in an email that, "There would be broader support for administrative initiatives and policy changes if the administration sought faculty input earlier on."

At the faculty meeting, Garber attributed the policy change to rising healthcare costs and a national trend toward greater cost-sharing between employers and employees.

Faculty members, however, maintained that the national trend should not matter.

“Harvard should be setting an example rather than following a trend,” Dench said.

—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.

—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.

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