BY JULIE REYNOLDS
At Digital First Media newspapers across the country, employees are struggling with a baffling maze of new insurance plans that in the end will leave most workers spending more than ever on health care.
The new insurance rates arrived as a bewildering shock to many DFM employees, especially coming after the company’s NewsGuild members won a long-sought 3 percent raise as part of a historic 12-paper joint contract negotiation in 2016.
“It’s just a nightmare, especially for families and people with chronic conditions who are looking at gigantic increase,” said Carl Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild.
“These high deductible plans (offer) hardly any insurance at all in some cases,” Hall said. “The pay raise we won was a modest increase after years of stagnation, but you can see the raise go away with these health cost increases.”
At first glance, some employees at DFM papers thought that lower monthly premiums meant they’d pay less for 2017 coverage.
Christine Bonanducci is a labor relations and health care consultant working with the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents workers at four DFM papers. She says the apparent savings can be misleading.
“The monthly premium may be less for the employee, but depending on coverage selected, deductibles and out of pocket maximums can be higher,” Bonanducci said.
For example, the Philadelphia area’s 2017 plans do away with co-payments for office visits. Instead of paying a flat $25 for a regular visit or $40 for a specialist, employees now have to shoulder the entire cost — at least until they meet a high annual deductible.
Once the deductible is met, the plan would pay 80 percent and the employee would pay 20 percent. Only when the employee’s annual out-of-pocket maximum is reached does the plan cover 100 percent of visits and prescriptions for the rest of the year.
For some heavy users, this might work out to a savings over the current plan, but for most it means higher costs.
High Deductibles, Office Visit Fees
Kathy Maaliki, a DFM senior vice president in human resources, prepared an analysis to help Guild employees in the Philadelphia area make sense of the new options, which include the lower monthly premiums. But those premiums come at a cost.
In examples provided by Maaliki, an employee at the Pottstown Mercury with a spouse and children would now pay $331.21 per month for coverage, compared to the $431.60 monthly premium she or he pays in 2016. That’s a savings of $1204.68 per year.
But Bonanducci notes that employees should consider whether the monthly premium savings comes close to offsetting the new out-of-pocket costs they’ll be paying for every office visit, specialist and prescription until their deductible kicks in.
That deductible can be high as $2500–$3000 for employees with families, Bonanducci says.
Thomas Peele, an award-winning investigative reporter at the Bay Area News Group-East Bay, says the new plans offered there appear to be cutting more than $500 a month from the net pay of workers with families.
“This health insurance feels like a belt around the neck,” he writes in a related story for DFMWorkers.org. “You need game theory to figure it out. Which option shall we gamble on? What happens if one of the kids falls out of a tree and has to go to the ER?”
HMO Premiums Also Going Up
Meanwhile, many DFM papers are holding meetings with employees who are trying to understand just what the confusing changes mean for them.
In Kingston, New York, Guild employees at the Daily Freeman arelosing access to their current Anthem PPO plan, but can keep their current HMO. While that may seem like a bit of good news, the monthly premium cost to workers is going up by around $150 more for a single person and $400 for families.
As in Kingston, the Guild contract at The Denver Post requires the company to maintain the current HMO plan as an option, so most union members are expected to keep their current plan. But their premiums will also increase by 8 percent. In addition, The Post is offering bronze and gold Health Savings Account plans to union employees, but not the platinum plan.
At the Bay Area News Group, the Guild’s Kat Anderson sent a memo to members advising them to stock up on needed medications before the end of the year. Workers should also make sure they know exactly what their new deductible will be, she said.
Employees who can afford it are encouraged to start tax-exempt Health Savings Accounts to cover their deductibles. And in an unfortunate sign of the times, employees are also urged to check if their spouse or other family member might have better coverage than the new DFM plans.
Pacific Media Workers’ Hall says that so far, DFM “seems to be completely oblivious about the impact on people. For years, they’ve been forcing people to accept pay cuts and layoffs while the company makes money.”
He said health costs will be a priority in new negotiations for DFM’s 12 Guild papers that are set to begin early next year.
“This points us toward the next round of contract talks,” Hall said. “It should fuel even more solidarity so that we can fight for decent terms.”
DFM is directing employees to an online “virtual benefits counselor” that goes by the name of Alex, which helps workers “walk through” their 2017 options. That tool can be found here.