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New health-care plan for ministers, church staff

New national health-care plan in the works for UU church staff.
By Donald E. Skinner

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For the first time in eight years, a national group health-care plan for staff members of Unitarian Universalist congregations is on the horizon.

Enrollment in the plan is open to ministers and employees who work at least 1,000 hours per year for a UU organization, to retired ministers, and to retired ministers and staff age 65 and older with Medicare Parts A and B coverage. Self-employed community ministers are also eligible.*

But the plan is not a certainty. For it to take effect, at least 500 church employees must enroll by October 15. Presuming that this goal is reached, coverage would begin January 1, 2007.

The plan, developed by the UUA’s Compensation, Benefits, and Pension Committee, offers four options for coverage: for an individual, two adults, one adult with children, or an entire family. Domestic partner relationships are included. A special website offers a page for calculating premiums, a list of frequently asked questions, and an application form (see sidebar).

The Rev. Ralph Mero, director of the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances, said almost 400 church staff with no health insurance have been identified. He said congregations will be urged to pay at least 80 percent of the premium for their eligible employees and half of the cost for dependents. The payments can be pro-rated for part-time personnel.

Mero said the proposed rates are competitive with other plans that have $500 deductibles, as this plan does. A high-deductible plan will be offered as an alternative for those seeking protection primarily against the cost of catastrophic illnesses. Men and women will be charged the same but rates will vary by age and ZIP code—medical and hospital costs for the same services can vary widely in different parts of the country.

Jim Sargent, a UU with many years of insurance experience, has been engaged as the communications coordinator for the plan. He can be reached at healthinsurance@uua.org or (617) 948-6405.

The UUA has not been able to find an insurer for a national health-insurance program for congregations since 1998, when the last coverage of UU congregations was canceled by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts. What has changed, Mero said, is that federal legislation enacted in 2002 enables denominations to create self-insured plans. Like most current denominational plans, he said, the proposed UUA plan is self-insured, adding, “This is the most rapidly growing form of health insurance in corporate and nonprofit America.”

The plan will be operated by a separate UUA health-insurance trust to be formed later if the enrollment campaign is successful.

Mero said small to midsize congregations have the most difficulty finding insurance because they have few employees. Many ministers and staff of those congregations have had to enroll in individual plans that charge high premiums. Larger congregations, which have more staff, are often able to arrange coverage through group plans.

Mero said the UUA plan will likely save congregations money in comparison to their current plans. “On the other hand,” he said, “congregations that have not been paying premiums at all may experience a kind of sticker shock if they are not aware of how insurance costs have been climbing in recent years.”

He encouraged congregations to provide insurance to staff. “Over the long term,” he said, “a good health plan will help congregations attract and retain high quality employees—and also fulfill their social justice responsibilities as fair employers.”

Employees enrolled in the plan have the right to take their coverage with them when they move, which Mero says “will be a great benefit to interim ministers and other enrollees who take a position with another UU organization in a different area.”

See sidebar for links to resources related to this story.

Correction 5.10.06: An earlier version of this story misleadingly said that the plan is available to employees who are not covered by the congregations where they work. It is in fact available to ministers and other employees who work at least 1,000 hours per year for a UU organization, regardless of their current health-care coverage. An additional paragraph about the plan's portability has been added at the end of the story. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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