If you want to start a lively discussion in person or on-line, I’ve learned that all you have to do is bring up the UCC Medical Benefits program. The conversation usually revolves around two points. One, the plans cost a lot. Two, you must enroll within the first 90 days you take a job in the UCC. There are no more open enrollment periods after those 90 days and you can be denied coverage if you have a health problem. In my congregation we recently hired two new professional staff members, one a full-time Preschool Director, the other a part-time Director of Christian Formation. The most difficult dilemma? Dealing with the cost of health insurance!
In part it was such a shock because we haven’t had anyone enrolled in the plan for the past 18 years. In my first call as a part-time Associate Pastor, I had no benefits. In my second call as a part-time solo pastor of a small rural church, they could afford a pension or health insurance. Since my husband had a good plan through his employer, I chose a pension. By the time I came to my current congregation which would have paid my health insurance, it seemed simpler and certainly cheaper for the church to stay on my husband’s plan. So, I’ve been part of the problem.
Why does the UCC insurance cost so much? There are at least two reasons. One is that we live in the USA. On average, we spend twice as much on health care as other wealthy countries. The second part is more specific to the UCC. Our health plan is self-funded. Contributions must cover claims. And, our clergy are aging. If you do not factor in interim or supply pastors, 51.8% of our pastors are 60 and over, another 28.0% are 50 to 59, 12.4 % are in their 40’s and only 7.8% are under 40. Just as you might expect, the older you are the more you are likely to spend on health care. If you had a larger number of young clergy coming into the system, it would cost less, but that’s not our reality.
The reason that the Pension Board limits access to the plan after that 90 day window is so that more claims don’t drive up the cost of the plan even further. According to their FAQs, they’ve studied the issues and to open enrollment regardless of health would undermine the long-term financial stability of the UCC Plan.
In a denomination where congregations are getting smaller and the number of part time ministries increase, I suspect that the cost of providing health insurance is already a source of pain for our congregations and their employees. It’s unclear what percentage of our pastors currently have coverage through the Pension Board. There are currently 4,946 people covered under the non-Medicare plan. That includes clergy, dependents, lay employees, missionaries and those serving the National setting of the church. We have 3,325 pastors just counting those who serve local churches. How many of them aren’t covered? What has been the impact of the Affordable Care Act on participation rates? What are the implications for our clergy and lay employees if the ACA is repealed?
I wonder how much the cost of health insurance in our system limits us as we look to the future. How can we attract the talented people we need to carry out the mission and ministry we can envision? Absent nationwide reform of our healthcare system, it’s likely to get more challenging. I have more questions than answers, but for a blog called “Vital Signs and Statistics, they seem like important questions to ask.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.