UCSB's Town Hall Forum on health care brought unwelcome news of more limited health-care choices for employees.

The Affordable Care Act may be aimed mainly at people not covered by employee insurance, but even those who are covered can’t relax. Imagine if your employer’s “coverage” was only good for doctors and hospitals 40 miles away or more. That’s what many people at UCSB — the largest employer in Santa Barbara County — will face if UC administrators get their way.

The UC Office of the President (UCOP) has recently announced a comprehensive restructuring of health-care options offered to UC employees. The most significant change is that all Anthem plans have been dropped, to be replaced by UC Care, a three-“tier” plan in theory, but not in Santa Barbara. One of the advantages of Anthem PPO was its flexibility; it could be used for both in- and out-of-network providers and internationally as well as locally. Now, neither of the two major physician groups in our area — Sansum Clinic and Santa Barbara Select IPA (Independent Physican Association) — will furnish network providers for Tier 1; Cottage Hospital has not signed on either. The nearest providers will be in Lompoc and Ventura! Using the UC Care plan on Tier 2, which will be available locally, patients will have to pay 20 percent of all costs, including tests and hospitalization. So, depending on the services needed, our medical expenses could be many times greater. Patients will have to pay 50 percent of all costs for out-of-network providers. Originally, four other campuses were in similar situations, but the system-wide UC Faculty Welfare committee protested, and agreements were eventually reached with local providers for those campuses. We now remain the only campus without equal access to UC health-plan options.

At least 750 employees — not just faculty but all levels of support staff, from lab technicians to maintenance workers — and their families will be affected. The result will not just be extreme inconvenience, but hardship, especially for those with small children or for older people with reduced mobility. To those with serious conditions — some of whom I know personally — the new arrangement actually poses an outright and urgent danger.

That UCOP would essentially abandon the employees of UCSB to such an unacceptable set of options is a gross abdication of responsibility. The plans were hatched and developed in the furtive manner typical of large-scale initiatives undertaken during the regime of outgoing President Mark Yudof. Consultation with individual campuses seems to have been minimal, and those in the know were told not to share information with the faculty at large or other employees. Since negotiations with Santa Barbara providers dragged on, the UCSB community did not begin to find out until a few weeks ago, and the official announcement was made only on October 1. Since the new system will take effect on January 1, and the enrollment period, which begins October 28, lasts until the end of November, faculty and staff will have only a few weeks to find new doctors and make other necessary arrangements.

Yet because the negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, it is hard to tell which side bears a greater share of the blame: UCOP claims that the local providers are demanding too much in the way of compensation; the providers insist that UCOP is not offering enough. UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, who was only informed of the details a few weeks ago, has since gone directly to the new president of the UC system, Janet Napolitano, to insist that health care is now the most urgent and important issue facing our campus; he has also made personal appeals, without success, to the management of the local medical groups and Cottage Hospital, urging them to reach an agreement with the university. The suspicion has even arisen that UCOP does not want negotiations to succeed because its ultimate goal is to have the UCLA Medical Center open a clinic in Santa Barbara: if that is the case, then UCSB employees are being callously — even cruelly — used as pawns in a profit-making venture.

For decades, one of the best things about working at the University of California was the set of options available for health care. These benefits have become increasingly important in the last 20 years or so: Not only have medical costs risen dauntingly, but UC salaries have steadily declined in relation to those at comparable institutions. Many of us have been disappointed that our salaries have not kept pace with those of our colleagues elsewhere — and some have jumped ship, weakening the quality of the teaching the university offers and the research it conducts — but one of our consolations has been that the value of our health-care benefits compensate in some measure for that decline. Now, for those of us at UCSB, those benefits, too, are under attack.

This issue should be of concern to the entire Santa Barbara community: UCSB is not only the largest employer in the area, it is a vital component of the local economy. Neither the UC system, on the one hand, nor the local health-care providers, on the other, should be willing to leave so many of the people they either employ or claim to serve without something as fundamental as accessible health care.


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