D. J. Bernstein
What it's like to work at UIC

$8860/year for health insurance

Are you a new researcher considering a faculty position at UIC?

Imagine a productive 25-year career, with a sabbatical leave every seventh year. During the spring of your third sabbatical you will receive a notice from the university saying

The "CMS rate" is more than $700/month in 2008, and increasing faster than inflation. Actually, $700/month is the rate for 36-year-olds; maybe there's a higher rate for older people.

You will, presumably, contact the university to complain. The university's "benefits center" will agree that the bill is obviously wrong, will say that they're working on fixing it, and will tell you to wait for a corrected bill. But the bill won't be corrected. The next month you'll receive a notice from the university saying the following:

Your continued complaints will be entirely ignored.

Do you find this hard to believe? Let me tell you my story.

On 12 September 2007 I received a letter from Angela Yudt at UIC stating that I had been granted "educational leave" for the period 16 August 2007 through 15 May 2008. During that period I was in Europe on an extended research trip, writing research papers under the name of UIC and acknowledging financial support from a three-year $400000 National Science Foundation "High-Speed Cryptography" grant. (Actually, the $400000 goes to UIC, and UIC gives only a small fraction of it to me, but I'm not complaining; most grants work this way.)

Ms. Yudt also promised, in the same letter, that my "basic health insurance will continue to be covered through the University." I already knew that "covered" was an exaggeration: UIC employees always pay a quite significant part of the cost of health/dental/vision/life insurance. Normally this payment is hidden as an automatic payroll deduction, but employees on leave have to make the payment separately.

So I wasn't terribly surprised to receive a bill from "CMS," the university's insurance agent, for $82.50 each month. I paid each bill.

The situation changed in March 2008, when I received (1) a forwarded letter from CMS saying that my educational leave had been converted to "personal leave" effective 1 March 2008 and (2) a forwarded bill from CMS for a whopping $738.34 instead of $82.50. I was, to put it mildly, surprised at these communications from CMS:

Needless to say, I did not take CMS up on its absurd offer to buy insurance at such wildly exaggerated rates. I did promptly call all of the phone numbers I could find in the letters from CMS. I ended up reaching two people at UIC's "Benefits Service Center": James Albovias and Timothy Gavin.

Mr. Albovias called me back promptly. He told me that the bill from CMS was "obviously" too high, that I should disregard the bill, that he would work on fixing the incorrect leave classification, and that I should wait for an updated notice.

Mr. Gavin wrote back to me on 31 March, ten days after I had asked him to explain what had happened. His email stated that "The state paid leave for educational/Sabbatical is provided to a state or University employee for a period of 24 months over the employee's lifetime." Mr. Gavin's email further stated that these 24 months had been exhausted in my case by educational/sabbatical leave on "9/1/2000 through 12/31/2000" and "9/1/2006 through 2/29/2008," according to his review of my "records in the CMS Membership System."

Let's think about this for a minute:

I continued discussions with Mr. Gavin by email. On 4 April 2008 he wrote that "perhaps" my seasonal leave "should not be counted toward the 24 month" limit on sabbatical/personal leave. (I have no idea why he said "perhaps.") He also wrote that he would "follow up with CMS to raise this point, and see that your case is reviewed further."

On 14 April 2008, having heard nothing, I wrote to Mr. Gavin to ask whether he had made any progress. He wrote back on 16 April saying "I've yet to hear back from CMS on my questions. I'll see if I can get a response back."

Subsequent email discussions with Mr. Gavin were similarly unproductive. Even though I was directed to Mr. Gavin in the first place, he didn't appear to have any authority to correct CMS's errors in this matter, and apparently his attempts to contact people in authority didn't produce any results.

During the weekend of 11 May 2008 I received three more forwarded letters from CMS. The first letter, dated 2 April 2008, demanded payment of an astonishing $1559.18. The second letter, dated 21 April 2008, informed me that my insurance had been terminated effective 1 May 2008 for lack of payment. The third letter, also dated 21 April 2008, stated that "within 10 days" CMS would direct the Illinois Office of the Comptroller "to begin involuntary withholding." The obvious meaning of "involuntary withholding" is that CMS will take this $1559.18 out of the next check that the university sends me. The letter also said that "coverage will not be reinstated" until I "physically return to work and meet all eligibility criteria," and that "payroll will discontinue direct deposit."

I was astonished to see that none of these letters made any reference to my phone calls and email in March and April. I had expected CMS to apologize and send me a corrected bill for $82.50 per month, which I would have paid; instead CMS appeared to be living in a fantasy universe in which it had received no response to its bills.

The State of Illinois Benefits Handbook says that "failure to submit payment will result in termination of coverage retroactive to the last day of the pay period for which full payment was received." It does not say that refusal to submit payment will result in having the payment stolen from the next paycheck, having direct deposits terminated, etc. But that's exactly what happened to me.

On 13 May 2008 I wrote a detailed complaint to Ms. Yudt, cc'ing three other university administrators. This was also the third email message in which I asked for confirmation that a devoted 25-year faculty member, during his third sabbatical year, would suffer the same sudden termination of health-insurance coverage.

One of the administrators said that the situation was "shocking and outrageous" and that he had spoken to the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs. Apparently Ms. Yudt was on vacation but the "head Faculty Affairs HR person" would investigate.

On 24 May 2008 I received a letter from CMS (dated 25 April 2008 and postmarked 1 May 2008) stating "This certificate provides evidence of your prior health coverage" and confirming that my health plan had been terminated effective "05/01/2008." I still had received no response from the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs or the "head Faculty Affairs HR person." I started writing this web page.

Let me recap the situation at the end of my leave, 15 May 2008. The university, despite promising health-insurance coverage through the entire leave, had stopped paying for health insurance in March 2008. Furthermore, when I refused to buy health insurance from the university at an insane $8860.08 yearly rate, the university decided to further punish me by (1) stealing more than $1500 from my next NSF-funded paycheck, (2) turning off direct deposit of all of my checks, and (3) imposing extra rules on reinstatement of health-insurance coverage. The university ignored all of my complaints.

I don't know whether I would have opted for leave if Ms. Yudt had been honest at the outset, telling me in summer 2007 that I would have to pay thousands of dollars for continued health insurance the next spring. I like what's happening at UIC's RITES center, but if UIC doesn't want me around then I'm not going to stay. There are many other universities that would be happy to replace UIC as the administrator of my current and future grants. In theory UIC has the option of keeping my current "High-Speed Cryptography" grant money, but only if it finds a replacement Principal Investigator at UIC and manages to convince the relevant NSF program director that the replacement is actually capable of carrying out the work. I can see why UIC found fraud to be an easier option!