Health Benefits United Under One Plan

November 18, 2002

Nick Marinello

On Nov. 11, the Office of Human Resources mailed all eligible employees a packet of health-benefit information. Don't throw it in the trash or hide it under a mountain of junk mail, say administrators; it may be among the most important material you'll read this fall. For the first time in five years, Tulane is overhauling its employee health-benefit package.

The changes are comprehensive and sweeping and will affect all employees who receive health insurance through the university. Gone are the university's self-funded Tulane Preferred Health Plan and United Healthcare of Louisiana's familiar HMO plan. In their stead, Tulane has opted for a single United Healthcare plan that offers three levels of coverage at a variety of premiums and with a medley of features. Cross-referencing the myriad coverage options to the multiple cost options can be a complex matter.

"It is important that employees carefully review the open-enrollment package and attend one of the open enrollments that are scheduled," says Warren Cuntz, director of employee benefits. The university will host 50 meetings during the week of Dec. 9, including 40 sessions on the uptown campus, eight on the health sciences center campus and two at the primate center. (See In Brief, page 2, for details.)

One-on-one counseling will be available to any employee who requests it, says Cuntz. He added that while the enrollment period ends on Dec. 20, he would welcome all enrollment forms that came in before the deadline. The new plan goes into effect Jan. 1, 2003. Linda Carroll, professor of French and Italian and chair of the University Senate Faculty and Staff Benefits Committee, says she expects the graphic summary of benefits included in the packet will help employees sort things out, but it will require an individuals time and attention.

The flip side of offering so many choices is that there are many, many options to deal with. It takes a while to get used to the grid and understand the equivalencies, she said. Comparing the benefits of your current plan to a level with equivalent benefits in the new plan is a good way to start the enrollment process, says Yvette Jones, senior vice president for external affairs.

If you are in the current United plan and you choose the mid-level option of the new United plan, you pretty much will be paying the same premiumunless you opt for family coverage, in which case your premium will be higher, says Jones. If you are in the Tulane plan you will have to weigh taking an increase in premium or take a drop in benefits.

According to Jones, in terms of benefits, the high-level plan equates roughly to the first tier of the current Tulane Preferred Plan. The big difference is that we wont have the option of moving back and forth between two separate plans, says Richard Culbertson, associate professor of health systems management. I am in the Tulane plan currently but I have moved back and forth in those plans at least three times. I have been willing to comparison shop.

Jones says she is sensitive to the fact that some employees will have to pay a higher premium to maintain a benefit package similar to the one they now have. The plan we are rolling out is the result of a nine-month process of looking for the right plans for the university, said Jones, who headed the administration's search for a new plan. We couldn't have left things as they are or we would be looking at a 38-percent increase in the cost of health coverage.

Last May, Tulane mailed out 31 proposals to national insurance companies and received 17 responses. Those responses were reviewed by the senate benefits committee in conjunction with Jones, Cuntz, Andy Heck, vice president of human resources, and Anne Banos, vice president and chief of staff. Our priorities in reviewing the plans were to maintain quality of care, contain costs and offer as many options as possible, says Carroll.

I think the general feeling shared by committee members is that we were satisfied that we got the best deal we could get. Another priority, says Jones, was to keep premiums as low as possible for those in the lowest salary bracket. According to Jones, the university will pay $19.7 million to United for coverage in 2003. That's about a three-percent increase over what the university paid out last year for the United and Tulane plans.

And that's not too bad, says Cuntz. We are currently seeing carriers and employers accepting increases anywhere between 20 and 80 percent. Cuntz, who before joining Tulane last year worked for 20 years as consultant in the insurance field, cites a nationwide trend toward higher premiums. There are a lot of reasons for costs going up, he said. Rapidly rising cost of drugs, for one. Add to that higher hospital costs and a shortage of nurses.

The final thing is increased technology. Which means the quality of care is a lot greater now, but you pay for that.

Nick Marinello can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000