Benefits Changes Bring Relief, and Potentially Confusion

Benefits committee chair is “worried” that faculty may have trouble navigating benefits options

Although some affected employees say they are cautiously optimistic about new changes to Harvard's health benefit offerings, the chair of the body that recommended the changes said he is “worried” that Harvard faculty and staff might have difficulty navigating the numerous health plan options.

“People wanted more choice, but the problem with more choice is it makes the choice process more complicated,” University Benefits Committee chair Michael E. Chernew said, later adding that “the real test is going to be around open enrollment.”

“[I am] worried about how comfortable Harvard faculty and staff feel making the choices among this ever growing array of health plans,” Chernew said.

After criticism and heated debate about last year’s health benefits package, the University adopted a new policy for 2016 that includes an additional plan option without deductibles or coinsurance but higher premium for in-network care, though key information like premium costs and reimbursements have not been announced.

Provost Alan Garber
Provost Alan M. Garber '76.

Non-union faculty and staff members sounded off after Harvard controversially restructured its health benefits policy for 2015, introducing for the first time an out-of-pocket deductible and coinsurance. Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and administrators maintained that the rising cost of health care necessitated the cost-cutting measures, but their reasoning did not resonate with members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who unanimously passed a motion asking University President Drew G. Faust and the Harvard Corporation to reverse the policy.


A new Point of Service plan will be offered alongside last year’s option, although more specific details about the new package have not yet been released.

The plans are subject to additional changes instituted this year, including no coinsurance on diagnostic tests, upwardly adjusted salary tiers, increased copayment costs for office visits from $20 to $30, and a reimbursement plan for low-wage workers.

Some faculty members said they do not yet have enough information about the new plan but appreciate that the administration appeared to take their concerns into account when crafting it.

History professor Alison Frank Johnson, a vocal critic of the 2015 plan changes who also co-authored an op-ed with 10 other professors criticizing the changes, said she is “reserving judgement” until final details of the plan are announced. She noted, however, that the new plan “has the potential” to alleviate some of the issues she and other faculty members raised last fall.

Classics professor Richard F. Thomas, who also co-authored the op-ed, wrote in an email that he appreciates that “there has been movement away from some of the more regressive aspects of the 2015 plan,” specifically citing the removal of coinsurance and deductibles for diagnostics and x-ray work.

However, he wrote that he would like to have seen more adjustment on the plan’s salary tiers, which were raised in an effort to support lower salaried employees.

In his email to affected employees detailing the new policy changes, Garber said they were inspired by the feedback from faculty and staff members, including town hall meetings and information sessions held by the UBC.

Chernew, whose committee recommended aspects of the new plan to Garber, said the change is partly a result of town hall meetings the committee held in the spring and other feedback they received from staff and faculty. He added that the committee revises Harvard’s health benefits policies each year, regardless of feedback from benefits enrollees.

“It’s not like we weren't planning to do anything and all of the sudden we did something,” Chernew said. “That said, it was the case that the overall community reaction influenced our thinking heavily.”

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.

—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.