February 2011

Monday, Feb. 28, 2011 -- Health care costs estimates

QUESTION

The claim that our health care costs will double in the next  seven years is dubious. Market analysis 101 - past performance does not guarantee future gains.

I suggest that these projections and the methods for arriving at them be released for complete review by the community and by UA  employees.  If they are indeed sound, and inherent in them is the need to cut employee benefits, they would lend legitimacy to the cuts that the UA Administration has put forward. Otherwise, it calls into question whether the UA administration is truly acting in good faith.

RESPONSE

From Beth Behner, UA Chief Human Resources Officer
 
UA's benefit consultant is Lockton, a firm from Dallas, Texas. Lockton assisted us in developing the trend chart referenced in the question above. It appeared on page 5 of the PowerPoint document presented to the Board of Regents in December.

The presentation is available online (pdf) at:

http://www.alaska.edu/files/benefits/U%20of%20Alaska_12_9_2010_BORMeeting.pdf

The cost projections on this slide are based on FY10 actual health care claims projected forward by 10 percent for FY11-12, 12 percent for FY13-14 and 10 percent for FY15-17 assuming a continued 17 percent current employee contributions. (For FY12, we are at an 83 percent university obligation for health care, compared to the 17 percent employee obligation.) Cost projections are for medical/Rx claims costs less pharmacy rebates.   These are conservative trend assumptions, which are very defensible.  By contrast, Premera BCBS of Alaska is projecting a considerably higher trend:  14.5 percent for 2012 in Alaska.

Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011 -- Cost of recycling

QUESTION

Does the university have to pay for any of the recycling efforts on campus?  Are we paying to have any of the recycled materials transported to Anchorage, etc? Thank you.

RESPONSE

From Michele Hebert, Office of Sustainability
 

Yes. There is a cost to recycle at the university. The cost of recycling at UAF depends on the materials that are recycled. Below is a short breakdown for several items. For more detailed information contact the office of sustainability at: mahebert@alaska.edu

Computer monitors are recycled through Total Reclaim in Anchorage. Total Reclaim currently charges 35 cents per pound for computer monitors/cathode ray tubes (CRT's) delivered to Anchorage.

Mixed paper and cardboard, glass, plastic and aluminum is recycled through K&K Inc. in Fairbanks. There is no charge for drop off but UAF is responsible for individual containers around campus, dumpsters, signage, labor and transportation cost to K&K Inc.  

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 -- Healthcare committees

QUESTION
Were any physicians or qualified health-care professionals included the in Staff Health Care Committee and the Joint Health Care Committee in making recommendations for adjusting UA health benefits?  Are the meeting minutes available publicly?  (If not, can they be made public, given the importance of the topic?)

RESPONSE

From Mike Humphrey, UA Human Resources
 
The university does not retain a physician to advise the Joint Health Care Committee. We have at times had medical staff come to committee meeting to speak on a topic.

If you would like to see the notes from the meetings they are available online.

http://www.alaska.edu/benefits/joint-health-care-committ/

The meetings are open.

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 -- Health care changes

QUESTION

Who is it who has approved these new health care deductibles and out of pocket maximums as circulated two days ago?  How is this not unconscionable? Some of the language talks about "penalizing" hefty users of thd health plan, but isn't the whole point of health insurance to spread the risk between a healthy and unhealthy group so that everyone is covered? The new plans seem designed to punish and drive away those who are older or chronically injured or ill by creating an effective pay cut of 10 percent or more... how can such a callous approach be approved by an enlightened institution?

RESPONSE

From Beth Behner, UA Human Resources
 

The plan design changes to take effect July 1 were made after consulting with both our Staff Health Care Committee, comprised of non-unionized staff members, and the Joint Health Care Committee, made up of union representatives, management and governance groups across the UA System. In some cases, consensus could be reached (for example, both committees agreed a dependent audit was a good idea). In other cases, consensus could not be reached. Ultimately, I, as the Chief Human Resources Officer recommended the changes and President Gamble approved them. Chancellors and campus leadership have been apprised of these issues each step of the way.

These decisions are painful; it's very difficult to cut back on benefits for loyal and hard-working employees. The current plan has continued to rise steeply each year, with the annual tab now at $65 million (employees pay 17 percent of the cost and the university picks up 83 percent of the cost). This cost is projected to double in seven years if left as-is. The current plan isn't sustainable. To continue the ability to provide a health-care plan for employees and their dependents into the future, changes must occur. Rest assured, the university is not alone as an employer in having to increase deductibles and make changes to our health-care plan. All employers are in the same situation. The cost of health care quite simply has become a heavy burden, and there is no easy solution.

Please review the documents posted on the HR Benefits website at www.alaska.edu/benefits/ for more information, including a letter from President Gamble as well as followup memos and information on the dependent audit and plan design changes from me.

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 -- Google groups implementation

QUESTION 1

I would like to know why OIT thinks that Google groups is a viable solution to departmental email accounts. We have several departments at UAF that need to have a general e-mail contact for potential students to UAF and the Google groups just doesn't cut it.  The communication on this change has also been terrible. No e-mail was sent to the FY accounts and we have all found out about this change second hand. Help!

QUESTION 2

Recently there has been a push to migrate departmental email accounts (fy____) to Google groups. Departments complain that they are getting spammed and are told to switch to Google groups to stop this problem. Supposedly departmental accounts were notified, but as best as I can tell our department account never received this notification.

I did a search in the Grapevine for Google groups and found an answer to a July 2010 posting that said "We want to make sure that we provide the functionality that everyone expects. We will also not eliminate any functionality until we have a solid replacement in place."  

I can tell you from having used Google groups personally and speaking to other departments, the functionality is not what is needed or expected and the replacement is not solid, however, we are being told through rumors that these accounts will go away at the end of June 2011. When we switched to Gmail for employee and students, there was a period of testing, training, and both systems ran simultaneously for a long period. The current situation with departmental accounts feels rushed and poorly implemented and communicated.  Is it true departments will be forced to do away with fy accounts come July 1, 2011? And why can departments not keep @uaf.edu aliases?  

RESPONSE

From Karl Kowalski, OIT User Services
 

OIT is confident that Google Groups will meet the needs of departments and groups. I will agree and apologize that communication on our part has been poor. We have not eliminated any FY accounts and are assisting groups as quickly as we can in implementing their new group/departmental accounts. This has been a learning experience for all of us. The wide variety of ways departments utilize the "group" account functionality has made the implementation almost a one-on-one experience and not simply a mass conversion. We have established over 120 new Google Groups accounts and have assisted departments in configuring their accounts for their specific needs. If you need assistance, please contact the support center and ask that someone come to your department and work with you. We will be glad to.

We have posted Google Groups how-to's at 

http://www.alaska.edu/google/groups/

Two and one-half years ago when UAF launched the Google Apps project, we surveyed faculty, staff, students and administration and the consensus was to move to the @alaska.edu naming convention. We have already converted personal email accounts and the next phase in the process was the group/departmental accounts.

The reason departmental accounts are receiving a large volume of spam is that our license for our internal spam filtering program, Proofpoint, was up for renewal. We made the decision to not renew the subscription on the old accounts and accelerate the transition to Google Groups accounts. We have been maintaining dual systems for nearly 2 1/2 years and we simply have to start weaning ourselves off the old system and begin to realize some of the savings we spoke of when we moved to Google Apps in the first place.

We do want people to have a positive experience and if you are not, please let us know. We can assist you in setting up the new Group account.

If you need to, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you.

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 -- Whistleblower protection

QUESTION

Does the University have a "whistleblower" policy regarding safety concerns? What protection can the university offer an employee if they want to report an unsafe situation but are afraid of retaliation?

RESPONSE

From Beth Behner, UA Human Resources
 
Yes. Any employee may in good faith report to or testify before a public body concerning: a violation of federal, state or local law; a danger to public health or safety; gross mismanagement; a substantial waste of funds or clear abuse of authority; or a matter under investigation by the state.

"Public body" includes an officer or agency of the University of Alaska. The employee must reasonably believe that the information is or is about to become a matter of public concern.  Employee protections and obligations regarding reports of these  matters of public concern are fully stated in Alaska Statutes  39.90.100 through 39.90.150.  UAF Environmental Health, Safety and Risk Management has forms for reporting safety concerns online. You can report anonymously if you choose.

Friday, Feb. 23, 2011 -- Healthcare changes implementation

SUGGESTION

The proposed health-care changes should not be implemented, given the lack of consideration and transparency behind them.  It's certain, as evidenced by the recommended changes (which do nothing to control healthcare costs, but rather shift those costs to employees)that statewide HR possesses neither the resources nor the knowledge to make effective decisions by themselves (or with the help of their two committees, whose members have now publicly stated that their input was advisory only, and held no weight with what actually happened, unless they happened to agree with the administration).  

Statewide administrators have easy access to some of Alaska's (and the nation's) greatest minds in their faculty and staff. They need to use THESE HUMAN RESOURCES to come up with *intelligent* solutions to rising healthcare costs that actually reduce (rather than shift) the burden of healthcare costs (and since when is fairly compensating your employees a "burden"?). There are many models for controlling healthcare costs through democratic decision making and which would not endanger the health of university employees in the way these recommendations do.

Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 -- Health care changes

QUESTION

Who is it who has approved these new health care deductibles and out of pocket maximums as circulated two days ago?  How is this not unconscionable? Some of the language talks about "penalizing" hefty users of thd health plan, but isn't the whole point of health insurance to spread the risk between a healthy and unhealthy group so that everyone is covered? The new plans seem designed to punish and drive away those who are older or chronically injured or ill by creating an effective pay cut of 10 percent or more... how can such a callous approach be approved by an enlightened institution?

RESPONSE

From Beth Behner, UA Human Resources
 

The plan design changes to take effect July 1 were made after consulting with both our Staff Health Care Committee, comprised of non-unionized staff members, and the Joint Health Care Committee, made up of union representatives, management and governance groups across the UA System. In some cases, consensus could be reached (for example, both committees agreed a dependent audit was a good idea). In other cases, consensus could not be reached. Ultimately, I, as the Chief Human Resources Officer recommended the changes and President Gamble approved them. Chancellors and campus leadership have been apprised of these issues each step of the way.

These decisions are painful; it's very difficult to cut back on benefits for loyal and hard-working employees. The current plan has continued to rise steeply each year, with the annual tab now at $65 million (employees pay 17 percent of the cost and the university picks up 83 percent of the cost). This cost is projected to double in seven years if left as-is. The current plan isn't sustainable. To continue the ability to provide a health-care plan for employees and their dependents into the future, changes must occur. Rest assured, the university is not alone as an employer in having to increase deductibles and make changes to our health-care plan. All employers are in the same situation. The cost of health care quite simply has become a heavy burden, and there is no easy solution.

Please review the documents posted on the HR Benefits website at www.alaska.edu/benefits/ for more information, including a letter from President Gamble as well as followup memos and information on the dependent audit and plan design changes from me.

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011 -- Tanana Loop bike and pedestrian improvements

QUESTION

Tanana Loop from the roundabout  to Yukon Drive is one of the few places on campus without any sidewalk or bike path. Yet, this is the only reasonable walking or biking route to the Butro/West Ridge area from many campus locations.  In the dark of winter, it's scary to see joggers, walkers and bikers trying to keep out of traffic's way in the snowy soft shoulders. Adding a sidewalk/bike path seems like it would be much safer.
 

RESPONSE

From Linda Zanazzo, UAF Facilities Services
 
We agree that this project is needed. DOT&PF looked into doing this work when Thompson Drive was constructed. The steep grade caused this project to be too expensive since it must meet accessibility requirements. This project is included in UAF's long term capital plan for pedestrian improvements.  However, there are so many critical capital needs on campus that it will be several years before capital funding could be dedicated to this project.

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011 -- Faculty Senate changes to core passing grade

QUESTION

Is it true that Faculty Senate passed a legislation, which was also approved by the chancellor, that requires students to pass core / general requirement classes with a C or higher? Will this effect classes that have already been taken? Why haven't the students been notified of this?
 

RESPONSE

From Mike Earnest, UAF Registrar and Director of Admissions
 
In November 2010, the Faculty Senate passed, and the chancellor signed, a motion that students must earn a minimum grade of 'C-' (1.7) in all baccalaureate core classes in order to satisfy core requirements.  There may be additional constraints on the grade, such as a minimum of 'C' (2.0) if the course is to be used as a prerequisite for another course.

The policy takes effect Fall 2011 and will not be retroactive to courses already taken or to prior catalogs.  Information about the policy will appear in the printed and web versions of the 2011-12 catalog which should be posted in August at http://www.uaf.edu/catalog/current/.
 

Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011 -- Clean Coal project at the Power Plant

QUESTION

A few years back there was a Clean Coal project at the UAF Power Plant to run a coal slurry through a pair of large commercial diesel engines with electrical generators. The project was supposed to create three buildings with two large diesel engines as testbeds, to test the possibility of a clean cheap(er) fuel alternative for Bush villages. I know the first building with the diesel engines was built, but after that I have not heard anything about the project.

What happened to the Clean Coal project at the power plant? Did the project get completed, and if so, what were the results? Are there going to be any additional research projects with the diesel engines? Are there any other research projects associated with the power plant?

RESPONSE

The Clean Coal Diesel Project was sponsored by the US Department of Energy and hosted by UAF.  The principal participant was the research firm Arthur D. Little, Inc.  Other participants included Usibelli Coal Mines, Inc., the Fairbanks-Morse engine division of Coltec Industries, and UAF. The Alaska Science & Technology Foundation also joined as a sponsor.

The Clean Coal Diesel Project had three major components. The first was an Alaska coal water fuel processing plant to be constructed near the UAF power plant. Coal from the Usibelli coal mine would be be mixed with water, ground into fine particles, and thermally treated to create a liquid fuel suitable for use in either a diesel engine generator or an oil-fired boiler. This fuel would be tested in a single 18-cylinder diesel engine generator installed at the UAF power plant and in one of the existing oil-fired boilers modified for the new fuel.

The project kicked off with the ordering of the diesel engine generator. Design work on the coal water fuel plant, the diesel engine generator facility, and the oil-fired boiler modifications proceeded in parallel with the fabrication of the diesel engine generator. Unfortunately, as design work progressed the cost estimates increased to the point of exceeding available funds by some $10 million. Once the magnitude of the problem became clear the decision was made to complete the diesel engine generator facility and put the coal water fuel plant on hold until additional funding could be secured. Efforts to find this funding failed and the project was eventually terminated.

The 18-cylinder diesel engine generator facility is currently a component of the UAF power plant, though it sees limited use. It is designed to test coal water fuel, but no actual tests were ever conducted with this engine. A similar 2-cylinder engine at the manufacturer's plant was used in limited tests of the fuel and injector design, and design of the coal water fuel processing plant was completed. There are no continuing efforts related to this project, and no other research projects are taking place at the UAF power plant.
 

Thursday Feb. 10, 2011 -- Video conferencing Board of Regents meetings

QUESTION

Why doesn't the Board of Regents encourage video conferencing instead of in-person attendance at their meetings? Currently, the BOR seems to have an attitude that "if you don't come testify in person, we shouldn't take you seriously." Well, that costs the University a GIGANTIC amount of money in terms of travel costs and wasted time. The University has a state-of-the-art video conferencing system that links all 16 campuses. Why don't we use it more often?

RESPONSE
 
From Kate Ripley, UA Public Affiars

The Board of Regents consists of 11 unpaid, volunteer members, most of whom have other jobs and lead busy professional lives. They make a considerable commitment to public service by serving eight-year terms (the student regent serves a two-year term). The board does extensively use video-conferencing for staff reports and updates during regular meetings to save on travel costs for those who need to present to the board or participate on selected topics.

The board has traditionally opted not to allow off-site public testimony for several reasons. Chief among them is the time constraints within which to complete their business—allowing testimony from all three main campus hubs would add significant time to each board meeting, which typically lasts two days.

The second reason is that each host campus and community are usually highlighted during the rotating board meetings; off-site testimony would change that dynamic. The board meets at a community campus, for instance, only once a year. That means some community campuses only see the board in their communities once every 12 years. A board meeting is a major event in communities both large and small. Elected officials, business partners, alumni in the area, and many others make a special effort to address the board in person. Off-site testimony could be a detractor.

Thirdly, the board recently decided that governance representatives should have their own time slot on the agenda in which they can address the board, separate from public testimony. This provides a
regular avenue of communication between the university's key stakeholders--students, faculty and staff--at each meeting, regardless of where. If you’re a member of a stakeholder group, get in touch with your governance representative if there’s an issue you wish  to be conveyed.

The UA Board of Regents has one of the more generous policies toward public testimony than many   of its peers in higher education. The decision of accepting, or not accepting, off-site public testimony is
the board's to make. At the board's discretion, it could be changed.   The board takes all testimony seriously, including written (emailed) testimony.   Please send your comments to sybor@alaska.edu.

Monday Feb. 14, 2011 -- Wellness program cost/benefit

QUESTION

How much money has UA spent on the WIN program over the last three years? Has it saved the university any money in the long run? Have people taken less sick days over this period of time in comparison to before we had the WIN program?

RESPONSE
 
From MIke Humphrey, UA Human Resources
 

For the current fiscal year UA will pay WIN for Alaska about $1.7 million for all of its services. UA’s consultants believe that for every dollar UA is spending on wellness we are avoiding at least one dollar in health costs. The large national studies have shown that for every dollar spent plans avoid three dollars in costs. WIN did a quick analysis of those participating in the individual health planning sessions (IHP) vs. those who were not and it looks like IHP participants use 14 percent less sick leave.

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 -- Cosmetology program at CTC

QUESTION

How did the pilot year of the cosmetology program go? Will it continue?

RESPONSE

From Michele Stalder, CTC interim dean
 
The current pilot year is half way through and the students are now accepting customers. We are currently conducting a review of the program to determine if we will continue to offer the program in the future.  

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 -- Decision-making surrounding Roxen

QUESTION

Who exactly made the decision, albeit years ago, to use Roxen as the content management system for UAF?  Please don't say it was some faceless committee, name names.  How much is spent on the Roxen license per year and how is that expense being justified considering that there are capable enterprise grade open source content management systems out there which would merely cost a support contract of less than $10,000 per year.
 

RESPONSE

From Karl Kowalski, OIT user services and Scott McCrea, UAF Marketing and Communications
 
UAF Marketing and Communications asked OIT to look into a content management system for the UAF website in 2004. Other universities were starting to move to CMS technology by then because they provide design consistency among sites on the same server, and allow users to manage their own content without web design skills.
 
In 2007 Steve Smith, chief information technology officer, chose Roxen as UAF's CMS based upon recommendations from OIT staff.  Roxen was recommended partly because it  was the product used for the statewide website, but also because it scaled as an enterprise content management solution. 
 
Roxen costs us $45K per year for the entire UAF campus. The UAF Chancellor's Cabinet covered the costs the first year, but after transition to OIT, only permanently provided a stipend via Performanced Based Budgeting funds which we use now for part of Roxen  and eLive!  OIT covers the remaining balance on the Roxen invoice of $17.5K each year.  

While open source is always an option, recent analyses of institutions that use some open source web CMS solutions indicate that on average they have twice the web staff to handle sites of half the size.

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 -- Federal health care changes and dependent audit

QUESTION


With regard to the dependent audit: Has anyone considered that there may be dependents listed on employee health plans who are under the age of 26, but not currently taking classes? The audit should remove these people from UA health plans. However, after July 1, 2011, they will be eligible to be re-added. If there is a significant number of these persons, wouldn't this skew prospective cost savings from the audit?
 

RESPONSE
 
Currently the university has Blue Cross check twice a year to see if a dependent between the ages of 19 and 24 is a full-time student.  However, on  July 1, 2011  the changes in federal law require the university to allow eligible dependents to stay on the plan to age 26 and the addition of older dependents has already been factored into our cost estimates for next year.

Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011 -- Dependent audit

QUESTION

How much is the dependent audit costing the University? Will we ever hear a number of how many people were determined to be ineligible?   How many people will have to be removed from the health insurance program to make this audit cost-effective?

Also, is everyone required to participate? Shouldn't an employee be able to just share documents with their own HR office to prove eligibility rather than being required to provide documents to an outside company?

RESPONSE
 
From Mike Humphrey, UA Director of Benefits
 

The audit will cost the university between $65-75,000, and has been outsourced to a vendor, ConSova.

The dependent audit is expected to save $500,000 annually, above the cost of the audit. During this audit, all employees with enrolled dependents must provide all necessary documents to ConSova for review. University HR offices will notreview any documentation for the verification process. This ensures consistency, integrity and fairness of the audit process, which the university has contracted with the vendor to conduct. FAQs on the Benefits website address the confidentiality concerns. The important thing to know is that employees’ financial and confidential information will not be at risk during the audit process.

It's important to all of us that university properly manage its health care plan and deploy best practices, which include occasional audits to ensure compliance. The audit was recommended by a health-care consultant and endorsed by two separate employee-led committees.

We'll publicize the cost savings that occur due to this audit, as well as the number of incorrectly enrolled individuals who are dropped from the plan. The audit process gives employees an initial opportunity to review their dependents and withdraw any ineligible dependents on the plan, at no penalty. The University will be able to determine the amount of claims due to ineligible dependents.

The university's benefit plan costs approximately $15,000 annually per covered employee. This adds up to $65 million annually and is expected to double in seven years. Employees currently pick up 17 percent of the total cost.   With a projected $131 million annual health care bill in seven years, it is the university's fiduciary responsibility and in all employees’ long term interests to ensure that only eligible dependents are on this plan. The university's underlying goal is to ensure a viable and sustainable health-care plan for all employees for many years into the future.

For more information about UA's dependent audit, please review the FAQs (pdf).

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