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News Maryland Howard County Ellicott City

Relief and skepticism follow health care deal for Howard school retirees

Retired educators expressed gratitude and relief when the Howard County school officials last month postponed the rollout of a contested Medicare plan through United Healthcare. But many remain concerned about their future medical needs.

"I was very happy when I heard the retirees were given a chance to get out, until I heard that we really aren't finished with United Healthcare," said Candace Taylor of Ellicott City, who taught in Howard County for 34 years before retiring in 2010. "I hate to compare it to a war, but it's like we only won the battle. … I worry about it coming back to haunt us."

The Board of Education unanimously voted Dec. 17 to suspend the implementation of the United Healthcare Medicare Advantage plan for one year, rolling it out Jan. 1, 2015, instead of last week.

"This was just the most asinine mess," said Emma Jean Merson, of Mt. Airy, who worked for the school system for 25 years. "They were messing with people's insurance."

The board had decided to switch from Medicare plans offered by Aetna and CareFirst to United Healthcare in June, offering United Healthcare a contract for $6.47 million — a savings of $2 million, said schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove. Continuing on Aetna and CareFirst and postponing the United Healthcare plan is expected to cost the school system $1.9 million, Amani-Dove said.

Concerns over the United Healthcare plan first started being raised in October, culminating in retirees gathering at a public forum before the board Dec. 5. There were problems concerning costs, coverage and a lack of providers' acceptance of United Healthcare. Retirees said the plan wasn't accepted at major medical institutions in the area, like Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical System and Howard County General Hospital.

Taylor said she didn't understand how a school system can recruit teachers and promise them health insurance when the health insurance promised isn't accepted by the hospital "a stone's throw away" from the Department of Education.

Retirees will be able to stay on their existing Medicare plans for 2014, and medical premiums will not increase during that year, school officials wrote in a letter to retirees Dec. 13. There will be a special enrollment period for impacted retirees from Jan. 21 to Feb. 7.

"It's time to take another look," board member Sandra French said at the Dec. 17 meeting. "We listened to our retirees and their concerns are legitimate and we're going to do the honorable and best thing. … If United Healthcare is able to fulfill all their promises and our expectations, I'm sure the board would consider removing the suspension."

The United Healthcare plan, pending a review, validation and approval of medical providers will go into effect next year "if it's viable," said Katrina Burton, the system's executive director of business and finance.

The school system will give United Healthcare until March 31 to resolve retirees' concerns, at which point the board will decide whether or not to approve the 2015 rollout.

According to a statement from United Healthcare, the University of Maryland Medical System and Howard County General Hospital would provide care for retirees with United Healthcare insurance, and would bill United Healthcare directly for retirees' medical costs. United Healthcare had been in conversations with Hopkins, too, according to the statement, and had hoped that they would come to a similar agreement.

"We will continue to work with the Howard County Public School System to meet our shared goal of quality, affordable health care coverage for retirees," United Healthcare said in the statement. "United Healthcare will stay engaged with the system as we work to resolve all concerns related to our network."

United Healthcare looks forward to "demonstrating the value" of the plan to retirees, according to the statement.

Still, some retirees are frustrated that the school system is having conversations with United Healthcare at all.

"Why would you consider working with a company that has obviously misled you?" said retiree Joanne Dolphin.

Even if the United Healthcare plan is rolled out in 2015, Sue Silver won't sign up.

"I won't go into it no matter what," said Silver, 69, of Columbia, who taught in Howard County for 40 years. "I need good insurance, and that plan isn't accepted by my doctors."

According to the statement from United Healthcare, any retiree could have seen any provider that accepts Medicare and the retiree's out-of-pocket cost would have been the same whether or not that provider is in the insurance plan's network. Providers do, however, have the option to refuse care, though they would be paid by United Healthcare.

Retiree Nancy Scoville believes United Healthcare "misrepresented themselves" in their proposal, and she's disappointed the possibility for next year's roll-out even exists.

"I'm holding my breath," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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