Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Purging Process

by Nina Moore
Associate Professor of Political Science

I feel somewhat out of place entering this fray, because two enormously respected individuals have already brilliantly articulated the reaction and concerns that many of us quietly share—and they have done so on very principled grounds. As well, I don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak, as my "dependent" will remain eligible under the ACA until age 26. Nonetheless, I offer here what is mostly a footnote to this discussion and in public support of Michael Johnston and Barbara Regenspan. In sum and substance, I wonder: why not simply require each employee to submit a form declaring dependents anew, signed and notarized?

As to Michael Johnston’s queries, I anticipate the following types of responses from Mr. Hutzley or from another in his stead, though I hope for more:

Anticipated Response One: The University/Mr. Hutzley has a fiduciary responsibility to minimize the cost of premiums for all Colgate employees, and the authority to make such a demand derives from this responsibility.

Indeed, I anticipate the argument (and implicit threat) will be that purging the dependent list will keep premiums down for us all. However, the best information I have (from the website of one of the larger dependent eligibility verification service providers) is that this process, on average, usually removes only 7% of dependents. It is unclear just how many of the 7% are subsequently re-enrolled due to having been mistakenly identified as ineligible, or how many were to be phased out naturally anyway, or how much of the "bragging" data are reliable, etc. Once Colgate completes its purging process, it will be interesting to review a department-by-department breakdown of those properly declared ineligible, the cost of the purging process to the University, and the net savings.

Anticipated Response Two: This move constitutes "best practices," meaning everybody else is doing it—so we should join the bandwagon.

When this explanation is (again) tendered, hopefully, as Michael Johnston urges, employees will also be provided with the names of institutions within our peer group that have adopted this "best practice," the details of the removal process utilized by the institution, the firm contracted to purge the rolls, the net benefit to the University/College, and the related costs. At least with the names of the small liberal arts colleges within our peer group in hand, faculty and other University employees will be in a position to learn, independently, the benefits and potential pitfalls of this initiative. It is increasingly a common practice here at Colgate University for new policy proposals to be justified under the guise of "best practices," with scarce information on how it is either "best" or a "practice." Some have said it is simply code for "lack of originality," and I tend to agree.

Anticipated Response Three: This decision was cleared by the Benefits Committee, in full accord with the University’s governance structure.

It is my understanding, albeit second-hand, that the committee was presented this plan about eight calendar days prior to the letter being sent to all employees. Furthermore, and again to my understanding, committee members were assured this was altogether routine, hardly anything worth probing at length. One or more members, I am told, questioned the timing of this roll-out, chiefly out of concern for faculty summer travel schedules, more so than permitting a full airing at a faculty meeting. It is entirely possible that the search for a consulting firm took place in the eight days to follow the meeting, along with a request for competitive bids, fine-tuning of the firm’s prospectus, a follow-up review by all University administrators, then drafting of the letter, and so on. The tell-tale sign of whether the Benefits Committee was fully informed and shared fully in the decision process that yielded this initiative may be reflected by the actual date on which the Bonadio Group was first contacted by phone or in writing.

Anticipated Response Four: This particular approach is the standard industry approach to dependent eligibility verification.

If "industry" includes Colgate’s peer group, then, it will be helpful to know the who’s, what’s, when’s, and why’s of the relevant industry, as Michael has already indicated.

Anticipated Response Five: Faculty and staff need not worry about the possible repercussions of this routine process, as it will be closely monitored by University administrators and, perhaps too, the Benefits Committee.

In my opinion, whether this is true is at least partly a function of the following types of issues. As I understand it, these are some of the very same issues raised by labor unions and subsequently addressed when New York City embarked on its own dependent eligibility verification process for its thousands of employees. Among the issues that will determine how harmless this process is and how little-worried faculty and staff should be are:

* Whether the documentation required for each category of dependents is appropriate and non-intrusive, whether the deadlines set for each category stretch over months as opposed to weeks, whether the documentation is the same for all in the category (versus being developed and applied on an ad hoc basis), and how much of the documentation must be government-issued, among other things. To ask a longtime faculty member to supply proof of his nearly 40 year marriage—proof that goes beyond a marriage license—strikes me as altogether unreasonable. Federal government tax laws, New York State tax laws, and IRS policy and procedures all accept a sworn, signed statement on income tax returns as proof of marriage and dependent status, unless particularized (i.e., identified) circumstances warrant more. I am not a lawyer, but to demand (with the threat of the loss of health benefits) that employees turn over to their employer individual tax returns, credit account information, and so on is a gross intrusion on the right of privacy. Perhaps the University’s grand plan of documentation requirements could be posted on the University website for all to see. Then again, that could have been provided with Hutzley’s initial letter.

* Whether there is an appeals process available to those deemed ineligible via this process. What is the structure of the appeals process? Deadlines? Criteria for adjudicating? Who will be the ultimate arbiter of appeals?

* Whether there are repercussions to faculty and staff whose dependent benefits—unbeknownst to them— exceeded their eligibility time-windows. Will they owe the University for back premiums or any other costs borne by the University on behalf of the ineligible beneficiaries? What assurances are there that there will be no retroactive application or penalties in connection with this process?

* Whether the University will exercise any right it may have to pursue fraud charges or to report individuals to government officials, such as the IRS or others? The New York City police union, as I understand it, pressed this issue and obtained a written guarantee this would not occur. Perhaps the University could provide the same written assurances to its employees.

* Whether the University will assume liability for any damages resulting from the loss or misuse of confidential information supplied to the Bonadio Group. One need only think of the recent Target data breach to appreciate the very real likelihood of such an occurrence. Target took steps to correct the impact of the massive breach, by providing consumer credit monitoring services, among other things. What has the University put in place to protect its employees in this process? What assurances will/can it offer should the Bonadio Group be as vulnerable to cyber attacks on personal credit information, as the multi-national corporation that is Target?
Anticipated Response Six: The terms of the contract with the consulting firm are set in stone, and God himself could not change any of its terms at this point.

This, to me, would be the most worrisome response. It would signal, one, the University has already conceded or lost control of the purging process. And, two, it has turned over control to what I would deem an inflexible firm little interested in accommodating its approach to what is best for the Colgate community.

It is my hope that Mr. Hutzley responds to Michael Johnston’s queries or, at the very least, provide more concrete, helpful information to the University community at large as we embark on what has to be one of the most intrusive processes in Colgate University history. In addition, perhaps Mr. Hutzley and the administration will consider voluntarily staying the dependent eligibility verification process or extending the deadline for submissions to December 31, 2014. This would allow the decision makers to develop appropriate safeguards and offer reassurances to faculty and staff regarding the impending purging process.

1 comment:

Jasmine V. Bailey Epstein said...

I'd like to submit this comment not to Nina Moore's post specifically, but as a part of the whole discussion. As an adjunct faculty member, I am currently not eligible for subsidized health care from Colgate except as a spouse, although I am not currently on Colgate's health plan. I have been a primary subscriber when I was a fellow and for some months also received spousal benefits through my partner, for which I was asked to produce no documentation whatsoever to verify the document we signed indicating commitment and cohabitation. During his leave from Colgate, my partner also had spousal coverage under my insurance when I worked at Harvard, and in that case we produced a certificate of domestic partnership from the City of Cambridge, as per Harvard's policy. My first observation is that requiring something actual and defined at the initiation of a policy is appropriate and transparent, and instead of correcting what someone in the Bonadio Group has probably identified as a breach of process, the administration is using this Colgate-typical administrative issue to dissimulate what seems to me a direct attack on the benefits of Colgate community members who do not have the stature, eloquence, or means to oppose the measure, and who will in all likelihood lose coverage they may not have the money or resources to replace, and at any rate, are most likely not getting through fraud.

The community members I’m referring to, according to my own surmise, would include, but are not limited to, junior and visiting faculty (many of whom are partnered instead of married and notoriously vulnerable to administrative whims), staff members (many of whom are also partnered and who may have fewer resources to prove dependents’ eligibility), and gay and lesbian and other unmarried couples across Colgate, as astutely mentioned by Michael Johnston. In other words, Colgate is targeting its poorest, least powerful, and queer employees in a move disguised (and we anticipate, justified) as best practice at best, good business if that fails. All three professors have made excellent critiques of this mandate in ways that I would not have had the expertise or sophistication to expose, but I wish to remind the professors who are able, through their intellectual gifts and professional positions, to raise a dissenting voice articulating that this is the commonest and tiredest of stories. Namely: Colgate is, like a company devoid of human accountability, using a blanket policy to justify a repeal of remuneration to its most vulnerable employees and community members who stand the least chance of successfully fighting it and are least likely to try. If there is any imagined social contract left between Colgate and its community, it is deeply threatened, and I think everyone who can should speak and write out against this predatory behavior coming from an institution that hypocritically espouses values that contrast starkly this latest outrage.