Shifting Benefits

Colleges and their employees are paying more for health insurance; proportion offering plans for same-sex partners continues to grow.
July 29, 2009

Colleges paid more for employee health coverage in 2008-9 -- and so did employees who are usually required to contribute a share of those costs. The increased costs for colleges outpaced those of the employees, especially those with family coverage.

These are some of the findings from the annual survey on benefits conducted by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. While some increased costs are expected, this year's totals may be more painful both to individuals (many of whom are making do without raises or with furloughs that effectively cut salaries) and to institutions (many of which are taking in less money than in previous years).

At the same time, the survey noted expanded coverage for same-sex domestic partners of college employees, which may soon be offered by at least half of colleges, according to the survey.

Here are the key figures for overall changes in costs of health insurance:

2008-9 Median Annual Health Care Premiums

Employee Only Employee and Family
2009 Annual Premium % Change Over 2008 2009 Annual Premium % Change Over 2008
Employee Portion $1,052 + 4.3% $4,064 + 4.3%
Institution Portion $4,432 + 4.7% $9,852 + 6.0%

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of CUPA-HR, said that the numbers are "a wake-up call that we need real health care reform." Brantley said that it is commendable that colleges and universities are paying as much as they are for employee coverage, but that the pressures on institutional budgets are real, and that the system needs to change.

Right now, he noted, the changes that are taking place beyond pure premium costs involve attempts by institutions to manage costs and to shift types of health coverage that they offer -- and Brantley predicted more such efforts if health care continues to become more expensive. The survey found that in the last three years, only 36 percent of institutions have conducted studies of the types of diseases prevalent among their employees.

Brantley said that such studies can lead to options that do not take away from the quality of care. For example, if a college finds many employees using a particularly expensive drug for which a comparable generic is available, this information can help the institution focus attention on using the less expensive alternative. In a sign of institutional commitment to promoting health, 52 percent of colleges in the survey said that they have a wellness program. But a relatively small proportion -- 17 percent -- know the percentage of employees using the services.

One trend documented in the survey that may concern many employees is the increase in "consumer driven" health insurance plans by colleges. These typically involve employees setting up tax-free accounts to pay for some care, and then high deductibles for major medical expenses. This year, 17 percent of colleges were offering the plans, up from 11 percent two years ago. Brantley said that a few years prior, hardly any colleges were using the plans.

Domestic Partner Benefits

This year, as has been the case for the last three years, more colleges are offering health benefits for domestic partners of employees. For same sex partners, the percentage increased to 46 percent from 42 percent a year ago. For opposite sex partners, the percentage increase to 37 percent from 34 percent a year ago.

The CUPA-HR survey would not count as domestic partners gay and lesbian married couples in the states that recognize such marriages. As a result, the data suggest that close to half or perhaps half of colleges may now be offering health insurance for the partners of at least some gay employees.

Brantley predicted that the percentage of colleges offering benefits for same-sex partners would continue to increase, and said that institutions view this as a competitive issue. "I think that more and more institutions see that as an essential benefit they need to provide to be competitive," he said. "As key faculty and staff are reviewing their employment options around the country, that is one of the things that many potential employees are reviewing in terms of the culture."


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