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Vol. 58, No.2 - April 25,2012
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In an effort to provide a voice to CUNY instructional staff, The Patriot Returns continues to publish reader letters that are of general interest, upon request.
The letter below speaks to an important matter which affects the entire instructional staff. It reflects concerns that have been voiced by many of our readers. The author speaks with great sincerity and intelligence.
This member has attempted to be heard by our union, and has been repeatedly rebuffed and ignored. Truly, the claim of "solidarity" rings hollow; apparently PSC leaders believe it to apply only to the so-called union "leadership" [sic]. Dues-paying members - we who pay the Union's bills and also pay for Bowen & London's stipends, summer salaries, trips, and other huge perks - clearly matter little.
Request from a TPR Subscriber
A member of the CUNY Instructional Staff requests that the person who sent a very special and heartwarming letter and card with regards to the family and a "very dear friend" in the mail about a month ago please contact the recipient directly with your contact information. The person would greatly appreciate it.
I am writing because all union members should understand what is happening with our prescription benefits. The PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund provides our prescription coverage through Medco. Last year we received a letter dated March 22, 2011 from the Welfare Fund stating that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has a provision that “potentially lifts annual and lifetime dollar limits for coverage for key benefits. If fully implemented in the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund plan year that begins July 1, 2011, a dollar limit on coverage for key benefits could be no less than $750,000 per year.”
This should be great news for all of us—a $750,000 cap on prescription benefits means none of us would ever have to worry about going bankrupt due to the high cost of medication. None of us would ever have to wonder how we were going to afford to pay for the cost of drugs we need to live. But then the letter continues with “The prescription drug benefit offered by this Fund and administered through Medco does not meet the minimum standards required by PPACA described above. Instead, it places a limit of $10,000 on the annual amount per person. This is in the plan design that the Trustees have presented as part of a package funded by the existing per capita contribution of the employer (CUNY).”
Okay, so did the Fund reject the plan and demand coverage for all union members, including those who might have medications whose costs exceed the $10,000 limit? No—instead, as the letter states, “In order to continue with the $10,000 limit, this Fund has received a waiver of the requirement that coverage for key benefits be at least $750,000 this year.” The waiver was granted “on February 22, 2011, based on a specific, quantified representation that providing $750,000 in coverage for drug benefits this year would result in a significant decrease in your access to prescription drugs and other benefits.” The waiver has been reapplied for this year and according to Larry Morgan at the Welfare Fund, they will continue to apply for the waiver in the future.
So the union apparently made no effort to even defend our right to the $750,000 cap; they simply applied for a waiver that bizarrely enough is defended with reasoning that if we were allowed to have access to our prescriptions without the $10,000 cap we would have less access to our prescriptions. Essentially, I believe what the Fund is saying is that it is too expensive for them to provide for their members, and so they will provide the absolute minimum for us. So if you require medication that exceeds $10,000 per year, you're too expensive and will have to pay the additional costs yourself as the union can't represent us all equally.
Investigating this I discovered that adjuncts, retirees and full time faculty and staff all have different benefits through the Welfare Fund. Adjuncts appear to enjoy the best benefits, though now the union may be allowing those to be taken away. (I don't understand the defense that the union is helpless to stop these things from happening—I mean if that is the case why do we have a union to begin with!?)
For many years I was an adjunct professor at CUNY, and during those years I greatly appreciated the insurance benefits I received despite the fact that there was always the anxiety that I might not get enough classes to maintain them. Having a chronic debilitating illness, there was always a lot of stress during the time classes started to be assigned and through the start of the next semester. That is why I was so pleased when I received a full time administrative position within CUNY; finally, I thought, I can have some security and breathe freely again.
Who would have thought I'd be worse off? It certainly never occurred to me. I was already making new plans for my future, celebrating the fact that I had one to look forward to. But then January came around and my adjunct insurance gave way to my new full time insurance. I kept the same plan even if it struck me as odd that I now had to pay for my coverage, while as an adjunct I didn't.
I filled my prescriptions in January without a problem because I paid for a rider on my plan that gave me a few thousand dollars of coverage, so it wasn't until February that I found out I had to now start paying $10,000 per year for my medications on top of the nearly $3000 per year I was paying for my insurance. It was a very confusing time and even though I got the letter from the Welfare Fund the following month, I was in such a state of shock it took me a few weeks to get my mind straight regarding what was actually happening. It was so unbelievable to me.
So I made efforts to contact the Welfare Fund , all of which were ignored. After that I sought my own solutions, and working with my doctor managed to eke by last year with only about $8,000 in additional debt from medications and insurance. In the meantime, I investigated my insurance options and switched to HIP starting January 2012 because when I called HIP they told me their prescription plan did have a cap of $750,000. I opted for that plan with the optional benefits, only to later find out that the optional benefits, that would have allowed me to save $13,000 this year in prescription and insurance costs, were not available to us because the Welfare Fund offers us coverage—coverage with a $10,000 cap.
So now I'm in a situation where I either pay the $13,000 per year out of pocket or I stop taking my medications. After a year of exploring alternatives, these are the options I now face.
I did manage to contact Larry Morgan at the Welfare Fund after realizing the Fund had received another waiver for the coming year, and though he made some efforts that proved futile, I currently am aware of no other alternatives.
When I factor in the costs of prescriptions and insurance, I am making less money than I was as an adjunct, and the stress of knowing that in a few years I could face bankruptcy from these expenses is taking a toll on my health. The Welfare Fund plan also includes a lifetime cap of $100,000, so after ten years of this, if I'm not already completely broke and homeless, I will face $23,000 per year in out of pocket costs for my prescriptions.
I realize that I am guilty of thinking—of expecting—that the PSC-CUNY union was watching out for all of its members. I was naïve to think that the union considers us all equally and accepts nothing less than equal treatment for all members. Now the blind faith I had in my union has fallen away and I am able to see the reality of this organization: it has become an organization that plays political games rather than representing its members.
In making the decision about our benefits and in making the decision to request the waiver it's clear that members like me weren't considered, or if we were, we were dismissed as too expensive. I thought the union was there to protect us from such things—who is negotiating, why weren't we informed, what in the hell are the people in the union doing if we end up with such poor coverage? I know this affects only those who happen to have costly medications. We are likely a minority, and it appears that we are being sacrificed because we are too expensive. But this could be anyone! If it's not you today, it could be you – tomorrow.
All full timers should be careful to not get sick, not to require expensive medications, because despite your membership in a union, you could still face bankruptcy— due largely to the actions of the very union we think protects us. Don't make the mistake I did and think such things only happen to the uninsured (in fact, if I were uninsured I would have better prescription coverage) or those in non-unionized jobs. It is happening to us, and we need to demand that our union stop allowing its members to be treated this way.
If you decide to publish this I request that you do not include my name. I do not feel protected by the union to the extent that I feel safe openly voicing these concerns. I also am adamant about not allowing my medical condition to affect my life in any way, which is why I keep it absolutely private. It is difficult to communicate how hard it is for me to tell others about something that I have the right and desire to keep private, but the events of the past year have put me in numerous situations where I had to tell strangers about my medical history. This has been especially stressful for me, and I would appreciate you protecting my privacy in this matter.
Those wishing to contact me can ask that their contact information be forwarded by The Patriot.
Sharad Karkhanis, Ph.D.