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Howard school system retirees angry over health care change

MedicareColleges and UniversitiesRenee FooseJohns Hopkins HospitalAetna Inc.Howard County General Hospital

Medicare-eligible retirees in the Howard County Public School System will have a new insurance plan come Jan. 1, but significant concerns have been expressed by some retirees that the plan isn't accepted by their health care providers.

For $6.47 million, the school system is replacing the existing, self-funded Medicare Supplement plans for Medicare-eligible retirees and their eligible dependents with a fully insured Medicare Advantage Plan from United Healthcare.

The contract is for three years, with the potential for five subsequent one-year renewals. Previously, retirees were able to choose between Aetna and BlueChoice coverage plans.

Some retirees, however, are far from satisfied with the plan and already have noticed problems. For example, United Healthcare isn't accepted at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Howard County General Hospital or the University of Maryland Medical System, several testified at the board meeting Dec. 5. Time is running out to fix those issues, as the deadline to enroll in a supplement plan was Dec. 7.

"I'm healthy and I'm still scared to death," said retiree Nancy Scoville at the board meeting Dec. 5. "I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I can't get a direct, yes or no answer about anything, from the system or from United Healthcare. I call Hopkins, Howard County General and the University of Maryland and I got horrible news. ... Every employee and every retiree under the age of 65 will have great health care next year, but retirees on Medicare have been discriminated against."

Candace Taylor, of Ellicott City, compared the change to a reputed custom among the Eskimos, when an elder who was deemed to no longer be a contributing member of society was placed on an ice floe and sent out to sea.

"Howard County has a commitment to providing fair health benefits as was promised to the group of teachers responsible for creating the foundation that made us a nationally recognized school system," Taylor said. "As a teacher, I would often remind my students that in life we often learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Will the system have the courage to admit their mistake of choosing (United Healthcare) and turn this into a valuable learning experience? ... Make the decision to do the right thing. It sure beats putting those former employees out to sea on an ice float."

Jim Evans, of Sykesville, spent 38 years in the school system — 24 of them as a principal, and after retirement spent six years as a substitute administrator. A member of the benefits committee and board liaison from the schools' retirement association, Evans was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma four months ago. He asked the board and school system to put a one-year hold on shifting to United Healthcare.

"I keep hearing from providers, 'We don't take United Healthcare advantage,' " he said. "If I take a United Healthcare card, I have to show paperwork (from the system) that they'll be paid. If they don't take it, there's a phone number to call. Or, I'm told, 'You might have to pay for it, but surely all your expenses will be reimbursed to you.' That's not good enough for me. When I go into a hospital, I don't want to hear that."

Superintendent Renee Foose said some of the concerns over cost, coverage and provider acceptance have been addressed through "non-stop collaboration with our retirees, United Healthcare and top medical facilities" in the area.

"We've successfully navigated through the majority of these issues," she said. "However, there are still outstanding concerns regarding the acceptance of this new plan by top medical providers in our community. We want to reassure our retirees that the school system will hold United Healthcare to what they represented, both during and subsequent to the competitive bid process."

In the event United Healthcare does not fulfill "contract obligations," Foose said, the system will cover the cost of retirees' medical services that were covered under existing plans.

Medicare-eligible retirees that were enrolled in a health plan through the school system were automatically enrolled in the United Healthcare plan, though some retirees opted out and chose an alternative Medicare supplement plan. According to the school system's website, if concerns with United Healthcare are resolved, retirees will have a one-time chance to opt back into the group health plan next enrollment season.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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