Committee reaffirms mandatory denominational health plan

July 5, 2012

[Episcopal News Service – Indianapolis, Indiana] General Convention’s Committee on the Church Pension Fund voted July 6 to affirm most of the terms of the mandatory denominational health insurance plan that must be fully implemented less than six months after convention adjourns.

In a new resolution, the committee stepped past a number of proposed resolutions (included in the list here) that would have changed the terms of the plan that General Convention passed via Resolution A177 at its last meeting in 2009. That resolution authorized the Church Pension Fund to implement the DHP plan by Jan. 1, 2013, with benefits to be provided through the Episcopal Church Medical Trust.

The committee’s new resolution, for which a hearing still must be scheduled, commends the 94 percent of the church’s domestic dioceses (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. portion of the Diocese of the Virginia Islands) that have already joined the plan, and reaffirms the Dec. 31, 2012 enrollment deadline.

The committee’s resolution extends until Dec. 31, 2015 A177’s requirement that enrolling dioceses set “minimum cost-sharing guidelines for parity between clergy and lay employees.”

According to A177, those guidelines determine the minimum amount that a congregation must contribute towards the monthly premium for eligible clergy and lay employees. The dioceses that have already instituted or formulated cost-sharing policies have chosen options ranging from mandating that employers pay the full cost of a specific plan to requiring all employees to pay a percentage of any plan or of a specific plan.

The new resolution also commends the Medical Trust “for progress made toward containing health-care premium costs, and urges it to continue to reduce the disparity in those costs among dioceses.” It also wants the Medical Trust to “continue to explore alternative strategies to arrive at a more equitable sharing of health-care premium costs” and to annually report to Executive Council, the House of Bishops, the medical trust board of directors and the Church Pension Fund trustees detailing progress towards that end.

The committee drafted the resolution after the members spent 75 minutes earlier on July 6 discussing the testimony it heard the prior evening. During that discussion, they expressed little or no interest in ending mandatory participation in the plan.

Committee members said, however, that they heard a lot of comment about the issue of what has become known as “parity.” Some committee members said people are using the term to refer both to the equal cost-sharing issue required in A177 and to mean a uniform pricing of insurance premiums across the dioceses. A subset of the latter concern, committee members said they heard, involves how the costs of insurance coverage are spread among the dioceses with some paying less and some paying more to support the entire system.

It seemed doubtful that a single church-wide premium was achievable, Deputy Chair Deborah Harmon Hines said. “I think the case was made that nothing costs the same thing across the country,” she said.

“But the social justice issue is more about bearing one another’s burden. And we’re all over the place on that,” she added. “We’re hearing people say they believe in that except when it comes to their own diocese.”

Earlier in the discussion, the Rev. Reid Farrell, a Vermont deputy, illustrated that very point when he called it a “no brainer” that his diocese would buy health insurance outside of the Medical Trust.

“I mean, it is for us, anyhow, much as we want to be part of the DHP, the parity and fairness is doing what’s best for the people in our diocese because they’re our first concern,” he said. Other committee members reacted with “Whoa.”

Some committee members warned that dioceses and congregations that currently find cheaper coverage elsewhere may see their rates go up. They questioned the fairness of allowing groups to move in and out of the denominational-wide plan based on the market at any given time. In the end, the committee chose not to include concerns over that issue in its resolution.

Committee members also discussed the sense they had that some clergy object to paying some portion of their insurance premiums in order to assist the congregations in their dioceses in insuring lay employees.

“In order to reach parity, clergy are going to have to give a little,” Deputy Lisa Sargent of Northern California said to a round of agreement from her colleagues.

“I don’t understand the resistance,” Harmon Hines agreed. “I understand that for a very long time clergy have gotten totally free health care, but that’s not the rest of the world.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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