Viewpoint | Penn State’s health care benefits don’t benefit workers

August 30, 2013 

PAUL KELLERMANN

The debate concerning Penn State’s new health care policies has focused primarily on the university skirting privacy law by requiring employees to divulge extremely personal information to a third party.

With good reason: This initiative makes a mockery of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Less attention has been given to a more insidious element of Penn State’s new policies — the provision requiring employees to pay a $100-a-month surcharge if their spouse is eligible to receive health insurance through his or her employer.

This policy will disproportionately hurt Penn State’s lowest paid employees.

When recruiting new faculty members, academic departments often deploy the carrot of a spousal hire to lure aspirants. This strategy has enabled Penn State to assemble a world-class faculty.

Other Penn State employees, however, do not enjoy this perk.

In my 17 years at Penn State, I have never heard of a spousal hire for an administrative assistant, cafeteria worker or lab technician.

In fact, many workers accept positions at the university that pay less than they could earn in the private sector because Penn State offers a generous benefits package.

But this package won’t look so generous when the university begins deducting monthly surcharges from their paychecks.

As the largest employer in Centre County, Penn State can negotiate deep discounts in its health care coverage; smaller employers cannot. They (and their employees) pay more for insurance and receive less in return.

Rather than saving anyone money, the university’s plan merely shifts the burden. This will, inevitably, create a drag on the local economy. And, ultimately, it will cost employees more — much more.

As a result, Penn State will wind up with a two-tiered health care system.

Employees whose spouses work for the university will pay one rate for health care. Employees who earn enough for their families to thrive on a single income will pay the same rate.

But workers on the lowest pay rung, who currently pay $108 a month to cover themselves and their spouse, won’t be so lucky.

Employees whose spouses can obtain health care coverage through their own employers — no matter how expensive or inadequate that coverage may be — would be forced to pay a $100 surcharge each month, in some cases almost doubling the cost for the exact same coverage.

I appreciate the university’s desire to rein in health care costs and I applaud its stated effort to minimize tuition hikes. But rising tuition is not an embryonic phenomenon.

Was Old Main concerned about the cost of tuition when it paid millions of dollars to hire public relations firms — and millions more in attorney fees? Was Old Main concerned about the cost of tuition when it gave its current president an $85,000 raise and its former president a seven-figure severance package?

Why does this concern for tuition costs only arise when the university attempts to rationalize financially squeezing its faculty and staff?

In its penny-pinching shortsightedness, Penn State is placing an unhealthy economic burden on those least able to afford it.

Old Main needs to step back and rethink all the proposed changes to its health care policy: Consider the unfair burden it is placing on the university’s lowest paid employees; think about the talent the university risks losing as workers leave to seek employment elsewhere; contemplate the resultant drain to the local economy.

Is it too much to ask Penn State to exercise a modicum of decency?

Why should the person who cleans the toilets in Old Main pay more for health insurance than executives who enjoy the privilege of private bathrooms?

I implore President Rodney Erickson to intervene on behalf of the entire Penn State community.

Paul M. Kellermann is a senior lecturer in English at Penn State. Readers may write to him at pmk8@psu.edu.

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