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Faculty Unanimously Passes Motion Asking Corp. To Reverse Health Benefits Changes

University Hall and other administrative buildings were closed on Monday in honor of Veterans Day.
University Hall and other administrative buildings were closed on Monday in honor of Veterans Day.
By Dev A. Patel and Steven R. Watros, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: November 5, 2014, at 1:00 p.m.

Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences unanimously voted to request that University President Drew G. Faust and the Harvard Corporation reverse the new health benefits policy—unveiled earlier this year—on the eve of its planned implementation.

History professor Mary D. Lewis made a motion at the Faculty’s monthly meeting initiating the vote. A tense back and forth followed between administrators defending the new policy and FAS professors, loudly applauding each other after each statement that condemned the changes.

FAS members received comments from guests of other Harvard faculties—invited to speak in favor of the policy—with less deference, laughing at one speaker’s assertion that hospital visits are not recipes for health.

Their debate—which lasted beyond the meeting’s scheduled end time, requiring a vote to extend it—culminated with a vote an hour after the initial motion was made.

The motion, as filed last week, asks “that for 2015 the President and Fellows be asked to replace the currently proposed health care benefit plan with an appropriately adjusted version of the 2014 health benefit package, maintaining the 2014 plan design.”

It does not require that Faust or the Corporation take any action but does stand as the official stance of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the University’s most influential professorial body.

Faust told The Crimson after the meeting that she would be “replying in due course.” She did not offer further comment.

After the meeting, Lewis said she can envision several options for moving forward. She wrote that "the University could change the policy to maintain the 2014 plan design by renegotiating with its vendors, which would probably entail extending the current open enrollment period.  Failing that, it could create a temporary reimbursement fund to compensate faculty and staff while awaiting a return to the 2014 policy, offering a second open enrollment period later in the academic year."

Faculty members have principally criticized the plan for its introduction of deductibles for non-routine health appointments and the introduction of copays. Under the new plans, employees we be liable to pay up to $1,500 a person and up to $4,500 a year for families of three or more out of pocket to cover copays, coinsurance, deductibles, and drug costs.

All of the non-administrative members of FAS who spoke on Tuesday expressed their disapproval for the new policy, in turn calling it an unnecessary measure, effectively a pay cut, and an unfair reallocation of risk to the most vulnerable members of the community.

Mathematics professor Mark Kisin said that whether or not the University’s claims about reducing costs while maintaining health outcomes are true, there are other costs associated with the policy change, including decreased attention to research and teaching because professors will be distracted by their healthcare costs. Kisin also suggested that the policy would damage the Harvard brand and reputation for providing strong health care benefits and disproportionately harm female faculty members.

During the meeting, however, Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 maintained that the changes were necessary to reduce the University’s health care costs. He said the University Benefits Committee, which recommended the policy changes, would continue to look for ways to “improve what we offer to our faculty and staff."    

Two Medical School professors defended the health care policy, saying that Harvard’s changes were in line with shifts at peer institutions and other companies throughout the country. The two professors do not hold FAS appointments.

Furthermore, Garber defended the changes based on an empirical study conducted by Medical School professor Joseph P. Newhouse ’63 that showed through a randomized experiment that increasing cost-sharing reduced health care usage while not harming health outcomes among employed adults.

Garber acknowledged that while this result  may be counterintuitive and the study is old, it does provide the best empirical data that is available today.

Ahead of the meeting, several members of the UBC penned an op-ed defending the changes in The Crimson on Tuesday.

Around 20 professors interviewed by The Crimson almost unanimously praised the motion after the meeting let out.

“It was a great moment for faculty, total dissent,” History professor Carter J. Eckert said after the meeting. “It was a complete rejection on the part of the faculty.”

Although English professor Deidre S. Lynch said she would not describe the discussion as “angry,” she said after the meeting that “a lot of us felt as if the committee that decided the benefits condescended to us.”

Classics professor Richard F. Thomas, who seconded Lewis’s motion, called the result “resounding” after the meeting. “I don’t think this is where Harvard wants to go,” he said of the new benefits policy. “This looks like more of a corporate policy.”

The meeting drew noticeably greater numbers than is usual, with many attendees sitting on the floor.

“I don’t come every time, but this time I came for this reason,” said Romance Languages and Literature professor Francesco Erspamer.

Lewis said she was “heartened” by the high attendance at the meeting, noting that professors currently on sabbatical were present.

History professor Alison Frank Johnson, a vocal critic of the changes who spoke at the meeting, said afterwards that she was moved by the actions of her colleagues. “It was supportive and deeply thoughtful and I think outraged but in a respectful way,” she said. “I’m proud to be a member of this community right now. We came together to share our thoughts and concerns.”

Also during the meeting, the Faculty heard a presentation on the five-year review of the human development and regenerative biology concentration.

FAS Dean Michael D. Smith also discussed a proposed motion that would slightly change the procedure for expulsion and dismissal of students, introducing a requirement that decisions be reached by a vote of two-thirds of Faculty Council present and voting. Currently, the decision must be agreed upon by two-thirds of the 18-person council, regardless of attendance.

—Crimson staff writers Meg P. Bernhard, Matthew Q. Clarida, Noah J. Delwiche, Mariel S. Klein, and Ivan S. Levingston contributed to the reporting of this story.

—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.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification

CLARIFICATION: Novemebr 5, 2014

An earlier version of this article stated that under the new benefits plans, individuals would be liable for up to $1,500 in copays and families of three or more liable up to $4,500. To clarify, those out of pocket maximum figures include copays, coinsurance, deductibles, and drug costs.

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