Reflections on district health care meetings
During the months of March and April, I traveled the extent of the IGRC, holding 10 district meetings regarding the proposed changes in the health insurance plan (Resolution 107) for 2015. By my very unscientific estimate, about 600 clergy and lay members of the conference attended these meetings – well short of half of the anticipated voting members at annual conference. However, rather than to rehearse (again) all of the factors that led the Conference Board of Pensions to make this proposal (all well-documented in the pre-conference workbook), I thought I would share some reflections from meeting with the faithful base of the conference, face-to-face.
I must first express how grateful I am for the kindness and hospitality that I experienced in every place. Even folks who have serious misgivings about the proposal treated me with gentleness and respect. Oh, that our politicians could learn these lessons of civility.
Second, in virtually every location, appreciation was expressed for the Board and the struggles they endured to comprehend today’s complex and challenging healthcare environment. Even with those few that expressed disagreement, there was acceptance that the Board’s recommendation was cast in integrity.
Here are a few of the things that I learned:
- In every meeting from the first to the last, the primary concern universally expressed seemed to focus on the tax ramifications of losing valued tax-sheltered benefits and having those replaced with taxable income.
- It almost seemed like the participants were glossing over the health insurance issue and going right to the tax issue. There seemed to be some acceptance that some form of health insurance would always be available (though not nearly as generous as what we have now), but the concept of possible higher out-of-pocket expenses driven at least partially by higher taxes was odious to some members.
- I don’t recall anyone saying that change is not called for. Especially after looking at the loss numbers of the past five years, there seemed to be universal acceptance that we can’t keep the current program. A few expressed that Resolution 107 is too radical of a change. But there were also expressions that it was worth a try.
- I felt widespread agreement that the local churches did not want a premium increase and that we cannot close a $2 million funding gap by making tweaks to the current plan.
- With some folks, there was almost a sense of fatalism, as if the decision had already been made. I know I don’t feel that way. We won’t know until the IGRC votes. Even then, I don’t think there are any permanent decisions in health insurance. Laws, elections and the economy can change a lot in a short period of time. Who knows? We may be back with a new proposal in a short time.
- There was such a widespread variation expressed in the dynamics between church and clergy. Some churches began immediately to speculate about how they could work around the proposed paradigm in order to provide a health insurance benefit for their beloved pastor and family. Other churches expressed distrust of the pastor and demanded accountability for the $12,000 health insurance subsidy they will provide. Some clergy doubted that their church would actually pay the full $12,000, but would attempt to find ways to pay less. These expressions made me sad, as I thought about how fractured clergy/church relationships can be.
- In almost every venue, I was asked about the future of the HealthMiles walking program and the IGRC flexible medical reimbursement plan (“FLEX”). Even though only about 25 percent of eligible members are active in the HealthMiles program and only about a third of pastors participate in the FLEX plan, the ones who do really love these programs. A decision on HealthMiles will be made later this year. If we can keep it, I believe we will. Unfortunately, it looks doubtful for the FLEX plan because of new rules which regulate those plans.
I feel like I need to share that if Resolution 107 passes, it’s not going to be all bad news. There are some charges that will be able to retain a full-time pastor because of the savings they will experience – and because of a big premium increase they will NOT experience if we keep running our group health plan.
Some pastors will do well with this arrangement, especially those who need help the most. After one of the district meetings, a young pastor with children told me that he had already talked with a Navigator (persons trained to assist with healthcare decisions.) This pastor would be able to get family coverage for about $100 per month on the Exchanges. He wanted to know if he could opt out of the current plan now, because we are already taking well over 10 percent of his income in out-of-pocket premiums.
May God give us wisdom.