Sept. 19--BJC Healthcare, the largest St. Louis employer, is preparing to cut health insurance benefits for some of its part-time employees.
According to two part-time nurses with the BJC system, managers and Human Resources representatives recently began informing certain employees that those who do not work at least 24 hours per week will be ineligible for health benefits.
This change of policy could affect thousands of workers at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis Children's Hospital, Christian Hospital and BJC's other hospitals, outpatient centers and clinics.
BJC declined to discuss the matter.
"It's horribly unfortunate that people in health care can't get access to health care," said Walter Kopp, president and chief executive of Medical Management Services, a health consulting firm in San Anselmo, Calif. "But most organizations are around that range, 20 to 25 hours a week to qualify for benefits.
"Hopefully through the (new health insurance) exchange, a lot of these people will be able to get access to insurance coverage," Kopp said.
He also said that usually, if a part-time employee does not qualify for health benefits, that employee is given a "bump up" -- or higher wage -- to compensate for the lack of health benefits.
Some health systems and hospitals are tightening their benefits, Kopp said, because "the health care industry is under a lot of strain right now."
"Pressures are being put on the hospitals to cut their costs," he said. "The Affordable Care Act is not just about the public paying more to get health care coverage. Hospitals are getting cuts too. They are struggling to remain viable."
Federal and state cuts "are requiring hospitals to change the way they deliver care," he said, "to make it more efficient and more effective and to reduce overutilization and unnecessary care."
According to BJC hospital workers, the health system's plan to revise its benefits has become a dilemma for part-time nurses and technicians who are on flexible schedules in which they may work 10 hours one week, followed by 30 hours the next week.
Word of the revisions has sent some BJC employees scrambling to reposition themselves in part-time jobs in which they will always work at least 24 hours each week to qualify for health insurance.
One part-time nurse at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, who requested anonymity, said that she was recently told by a BJC manager that these health benefits were pared back as a consequence of the new health care law.
Earlier this year, BJC laid off about 160 employees. Steve Lipstein, the health system's chief executive, said that those cuts were needed in part because of the Affordable Care Act's reduced federal and state reimbursements for services rendered to Medicare and Medicaid patients.
BJC, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization, operates 13 hospitals in Missouri and Southern Illinois. The health system has about 25,200 employees. And of that total, about 5,560 are part-time workers. It is unclear how many of those part-time employees work at least 24 hours per week.
BJC representatives declined Wednesday to confirm or deny the planned revisions to its health insurance plan.
"We are in the process of communicating the 2014 medical benefit plan to our employees and understandably will share the components of the plan with our employees prior to giving information to the general public," BJC spokeswoman Kim Kitson said in a written statement.
"We should complete our communications to employees within the next 10 days or so and will be able to share more details with you at that time."
BJC's goal, she added, is "to provide comprehensive, affordable coverage that includes resources and programs that encourage employees to be proactive in managing their health."
Kitson said that BJC does not plan to increase its overall work force in the next 12 months, but continues to fill open positions and recruit for hundreds of vacancies.
BJC's planned revision to its health insurance coverage is the latest indication of a new trend in the way companies handle health insurance benefits.
Darden Restaurants, Sears and Walgreen have announced plans to move employees to private insurance exchanges. IBM and Time Warner also are shifting retirees to private exchanges. And UPS announced it would stop covering the working spouses of nonunion employees in some cases.
Hospitals and health systems in the St. Louis area have varying standards regarding health benefits for part-time employees.
St. Anthony's Medical Center, an independent nonprofit hospital in south St. Louis County, offers health benefits.
"We offer eligibility for health care for workers at 20 hours per week," said Ed Carthew, vice president of human resources. "That's what we're going forward with in 2014. ... We go through a process annually of taking a look at our plans."
Chesterfield-based Mercy Health -- a nonprofit Catholic organization -- requires employees to work at least 32 hours per two-week pay period to qualify for health insurance benefits. Mercy spokeswoman Bethany Pope said those benefits were not expected to change for 2014.
Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp., a for-profit company that operates St. Louis University Hospital and Des Peres Hospital, requires part-time employees to work 48 hours per 2-week pay period to qualify for health benefits.
When asked about BJC's planned revisions to its health benefits, SLU Hospital spokeswoman Laura Keller said: "We are not making similar changes to our plan."