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Part-time faculty at SOU, RCC get health benefits

Mail Tribune file photo of the High Tech Center at Rogue Community College in White City.
Human resources departments have notified eligible employees of the change, thanks to new state legislation

For the first time, part-time faculty at Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College are eligible for health care benefits.

The change comes about as a result of Senate Bill 551, which grants “the same employee-only health care benefits” as full-time faculty as long as the part-time member is working at least half as much for at least three of the four previous academic terms.

On Oct. 7, Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission approved a permanent rule stating how higher education institutions could request reimbursement for those new health care costs.

RCC and SOU’s respective human resources departments have notified faculty of SB551 and that some might qualify for benefits. For SOU, this applies to 300 part-time faculty members and only 64 at RCC.

For the latter school, more faculty might be eligible only if they attest to it. SOU, meanwhile, says it is incumbent upon part-time faculty to approach HR and see if they qualify for benefits.

RCC part-time faculty could see their new benefits immediately. But for SOU, it won’t be until Nov. 1.

“I think it’s very important to the faculty who are eligible to receive it,” said Joe Mosley, SOU’s director of community and media relations. “Health care is essential to all of us and I think it’s great that there’s an opportunity to expand that somewhat.”

He did not give an exact figure, but said only “a handful” of faculty have responded so far.

“It remains to be seen how widely this is going to be used and how broadly our faculty will be eligible for it,” Mosley said. “It is up to the employee to reach out to HR and pursue this.”

There are three health care plans available to SOU employees under the public employees benefit board.

“Those who are eligible and start receiving this health care benefit, they’re going to love it,” Mosley said. “We have very good health care coverage.”

Mosley stressed that, although there are close to 300 employees working at SOU, not all of them may qualify for the health care benefits mandated under the new law because of the minimum length of time they must serve to become eligible.

“If you reach that level of eligibility, you’re good to go for the next six months,” he said. “At that point, it’s looked at again and the HR folks make sure that you have again worked three out of four times of the last four terms and you’re eligible again.”

While the new law allows for part-time faculty to get some health care, it is the HECC rule that makes it possible for the university to cover the remaining 90% faculty won’t have to pay for their benefits.

“Without that commitment from the state and from HECC, we wouldn’t have been able to afford to do this,” Mosley said. “We appreciate very much anything they can do to help us run more efficiently and to help the employees at our university.”

Kyle Thomas, director of legislative and policy affairs for HECC, said it’s not his agency’s role to take a position on legislation, only to help guide lawmakers into crafting bills that are able to be enforced.

There is some ambiguity in the language of SB511, he added, but those issues won’t likely be resolved until next year.

“One of those questions is whether the Legislature intended the faculty to be eligible for medical and prescription drug coverage only or whether they intended [for faculty to also be eligible for] dental and vision,” Thomas said.

In this initial round of HECC implementation, his agency determined through some analysis that lawmakers did not intend the coverage to extend into those two categories.

“The reason we said that is because the term ‘medical,’ as interpreted by the Public Employees Benefit Board, has a very specific meaning in Oregon law and that’s exclusive of dental and vision,” Thomas said. “But [lawmakers] might come back and clarify the legislation in the future.”

Even though changes might not be made until 2022, institutions can still move forward and notify faculty they might be eligible for some health benefits, according to Thomas.

Asked about any potential concerns with SB551, Vicki McCrary, a spokesperson for RCC, said the school has been in close communication with HECC and relevant groups on the matter. The school has collaborated with peer institutions on crafting a form for health benefits and how to navigate the enrollment process.

“We will continue to do our best to meet the spirit of the law while specific guidance continues to be developed,” McCrary wrote in an email.

Part of HECC’s responsibility is to make sure the state’s higher education institutions get money mandated by the Legislature -- that’s where the permanent rule the commission approved on Oct. 7 comes in.

“Sometimes, when the Legislature gives us money, they’re also counting on us to design the program. This is not one of those cases; we don’t deal in faculty benefits … we were just asked to distribute [funds],” Thomas said. “The way we came up with the rule is just through several hours of conversations with the folks who deal with benefits on a daily basis … when we talked through all of the technical issues, the rule kind of ends up writing itself.”