Why Should You Care About the EBC and Consensus Decision-Making
A Short History of the EBC
First off, what the heck is an EBC anyway? EBC stands for Employee Benefits Council. It’s a group set up by the Local 328 contract to review health-related benefit plans, recommend plan-design changes and review and recommend contracts with various benefit-plan providers. The EBC is made up of 12 representatives: six from management and non-represented employees (managers, supervisors, faculty, research staff and the HR Benefits office) and six union representatives (two from ONA and four from AFSCME).
The EBC was designed to work by consensus; that is, it tries to get unanimous agreement on changes to benefit plans. Plan changes can happen for a variety of reasons. For example, in the years leading up to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the EBC tried to contain costs while maximizing coverage in order to avoid paying the so-called “Cadillac tax” that the ACA called for if health-insurance premiums rose above a certain level. Another example is that the EBC chose to limit the massage benefit, because we saw heavy use by very few people, using out of network providers, which drove up premium costs for everyone else.
Choices about changes like this are hard to make, because no matter what we do in the drive to contain costs and provide excellent benefits, some people will feel like they’ve been helped and others will feel like they’ve been hurt. The consensus process is meant to be a check against rash decisions or financial decisions that will disproportionately hurt others. Among the groups represented on the EBC, AFSCME is unique in that we represent employees, in about 300 job classifications, whose wages vary tremendously. We try to ensure that whatever we do, it does not leave our lower-paid workers in a position where they cannot afford their health care. An extra $25 or $50 has a very different impact on someone making $15/hour than it does for someone making $90,000 or more a year.
Through all of the EBC’s decisions, the consensus process has been the glue that has allowed all of the representatives to make decisions that, over the years, have kept our health-care benefits at OHSU affordable and accessible. So what happens when the EBC can’t reach consensus? Well, our contract addresses that. If consensus cannot be reached, then the EBC votes on the decision. Management/OHSU has three votes, ONA has one vote and AFSCME has two votes. If the vote ends in a tie, OHSU’s president casts the tie-breaking vote.
In all our union’s years of sitting on the EBC, we do not recall ever having to vote or ever having OHSU’s president break a tie.
Consensus Breaks Down
This year has seen the first cracks in the foundation of consensus decision-making with the EBC. Within the last two months:
- The EBC was in the final stages of reaching consensus on recommending changing the third-party administrator of our health plan to Aetna from Moda. President Robertson overruled the EBC and decided that OHSU would remain with Moda.
- The EBC could not reach consensus on whether to offer a high-deductible health plan in addition to our current plan. The chair of the committee moved quickly to a vote and the vote was tied 3-3, with all union votes being against offering such a plan. President Robertson cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of offering a high-deductible health plan.
- Several years ago the EBC was approached by our consultants with a proposal to raise deductibles rather dramatically, in an attempt to keep premiums down. In a compromise designed to keep health care affordable, the EBC reached consensus to raise deductibles by $25/year over several years. HR Benefits is now proposing throwing this agreement aside and imposing new, dramatically higher deductibles.
- HR Benefits has also proposed adding a spousal surcharge of $50/month for every employee whose spouse opts for OHSU’s health insurance when they are eligible for health-care coverage through their own employer. Our union contends that a spousal surcharge is a premium increase, not a plan-design change and therefore needs to be raised at the bargaining table not at the EBC. Local 328 has filed a grievance on this matter; our grievance has already been heard by an arbitrator and we are awaiting a decision.
The EBC has functioned by consensus decision-making for more than two decades. The breakdown of that model will have consequences far beyond the meeting room of the EBC. It will be felt in paychecks, at doctors’ offices and at the bargaining table.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Why is HR Benefits proposing these changes that take money from OHSU’s employees’ pockets? Well, they have been given marching orders to save more than a million dollars on the OHSU’s health-care benefits budget.
Why? We have asked and have not been answered — unless you consider “to maintain the viability of OHSU” to be an answer of sufficient specificity to justify taking money back from our members and other OHSU employees.
Who made this decision? Asked and not answered.
Are these marching orders coming from Huron Consulting Group, which just decided that it would be a swell idea to grab a million or so benefits dollars back from employees? Asked and not answered.
How are management votes tallied at the EBC? Who decided how their three votes are cast? Asked and actually answered: they don’t know. In the one case where we voted, all management representatives were in favor of the high-deductible plan. They haven’t decided what they would do if the management representatives’ votes were ever split.
HR Benefits has indicated that the spousal surcharge will not be dealt with until we get an arbitration decision. Make no mistake — we will deal with the spousal surcharge at the EBC if our union loses the arbitration or at bargaining if we win the arbitration. This is not going away.
The proposed deductible changes will be dealt with at the EBC. The EBC has dealt with deductibles in the past. We suspect we will not reach consensus on ending the compromise deal we made and instead imposing new, higher deductibles. That will force a vote. You can see where this is going.
The move away from consensus decisions in the service of taking dollars away from our members and others — for secretive and unspecified reasons — is profoundly dangerous. The EBC has worked and worked well for more than 20 years — because of the internal checks and balances required by successful use of consensus decision-making.
Forcing votes on contentious issues and letting them be decided by tie-breaker votes by a brand new OHSU president just prior to our union embarking on contract bargaining is a risky proposition for all concerned. It unnecessarily raises the stakes at the bargaining table and, more importantly, undermines a model of labor management cooperation that — in the case of the EBC — has been remarkably effective for more than two decades.
Let us know what you think.