Aug 15, 2009

Second Comment of the Week

Since Frank is presently totally occupied with getting his house built, I've culled another comment from this week's contributions for discussion. This one is topical and addresses LANS' decision to drop LANL staff and retirees from health plan coverage if they don't take action during this year's open enrollment.

Click the image to enlarge.

1. People have already chosen their health plan options: HMO, PPO, or whatever. They have already agreed that money will be subtracted out of their paychecks every month. If the benefits folks choose to mess around with what looks like a pretty good set of health plans, the least they could do is make the process as painless as possible for the laboratory workers. Dropping people is the absolute worst default.

2. While we are on the topic --- what exactly was wrong with the current plans? My guess is, not much. The benefits folks just had to continue changing things, to give an appearance of constant activity.

For the very same reason, the Lab (and the folks at LASO) are constantly generates a litany of new rules, memos, training plans, you name it. A stream of "computer security innovations", new travel and visitor rules, procurement changes, etc is continuously being dumped on people, severely disrupting productivity and depressing moral. The eventual loser in all of this by the way is the American Taxpayer, who pours over $2B/year into this Lab and gets less and less in return.

The truth is, if this activity-for-the-sake-of-
showing-activity were to simply stop, things would improve. It would also become instantly clear that a whole bunch of folks are really not needed here. Indeed, we are paying them out of our humongous overhead to impede our work.

They themselves see that, which is precisely why they can't stop their activity-for-the-sake-of-
showing-activity, even for a second.



Anonymous said...

"The truth is, if this activity-for-the-sake-of-
showing-activity were to simply stop, things would improve. It would also become instantly clear that a whole bunch of folks are really not needed here. Indeed, we are paying them out of our humongous overhead to impede our work." (COW Post)

Unfortunately, the majority of employees at LANL now seem to be involved with the rule making and policy enforcement activities that both LANS and NNSA dearly love, so it will only get worse with time. The fact that report after report has listed this as one of the NNSA's top problems continues to fall on deaf ears.

We've past the tipping point at LANL and the majority rules. The fact that this stuff is slowing killing productive work at the lab is irrelevant to those making the key decisions. The disconnect is complete and total.

Anonymous said...

Maybe LANL is getting hammered with questions about United Health Care being part of the Lewin Group. Our premiums help pay for the Lewin Group propaganda as well as being used for contributions to some senators' and representatives' election funds.

Greg Close said...

Okay, lets please get facts on the table instead of these rampant assumptions. Truly, they are not accurate - please verify your facts.

To address the points in the "headline" post:

1) Yes, people have chosen their current plan and related deduction. However, there will be new plans, and new deductions, and many people will see different options and costs than they had previously. I realize you are not an expert on I.R.S. Section 125 Cafeteria Plan benefit rules, but there ARE rules and liabilities and best practices for this stuff. Despite some nice legislation in 2007 revamping Sec 125 rules for default coverage - we can't meet some of the required criteria to execute it. End of story.
I am sorry about it not being painless - honestly, do you think it's easier for Benefits to force 8k employees to make an active medical election? This is not easy for us. It's certainly going to be a lot more work for us than for you, but sometimes "painless" and "appropriate" do not go hand in hand. YOU need to make a DECISION; and while it might not be a painless process, it is appropriate that you should make that decision for yourself and your family. Why would you want us to make this decision for you? You don't even trust LANS - but you'd want LANS to plop you in coverage of "our" choosing? That's really contradictory logic.
And again, we have a comprehensive plan for tracking down those who do not make an election and to make sure we get it. We give a crap, and we don't want you canceled.
2) Do you want to know what's "wrong" with the current plans, or "what could be better?" Because our job is to get the best value we can, not sit tight with the status quo just because it's "pretty good." We think we will see improvement in claims processing and service and most employees will see lower premium costs. Should we not be looking for those improvements? This was certainly not an exercise in trying to act busy to justify our existence (that's actually Year Six of our Five Year Plan).
LIfe would be a lot easier for Benefits if we'd left things as is - and more expensive for the average employee.
Okay. I'm off to put on my fire retardant underwear so you guys can blast the crap out of me. Safety First!

Anonymous said...

The do-nothing bureaucrats have infested the place with their 6-sigma, flavor-of-the-week conduct of operations nonsense, mind-numbing paperwork for the sake of paperwork, and (truly) C-student project management without deliverables. Of course Bechtel profits every step of the way with PBI's filled with phony progress measures. It is criminal. DOE/NNSA are complicit. Hey, but L(0)(0)K out for each other and wear shoes that grip! That'll save the country.

Anonymous said...

Greg, this transition may be perfectly rational and beneficial to employees. The reactions here are symptomatic of the complete erosion of trust that's been accomplished by LANL management over the last several years. Remember Maslow's hierarchy of needs? Our management can't even seem to get the basics of modern human existince right anymore - e.g. safe drinking water and a non-porous roof over our heads. Our access to the basic tools to do our jobs is being eroded daily, and we are increasingly treated as babies in the safety and security arenas.

Mike berated a room full of managers last week (at the Leadership Summit on Alignment, of all places) for holding different views and experiences of the Lab than his own. Why can't Alignment go bottom-up as well as top-down? It was supremely ironic that Alan Bishop presented a video about the Shackleton Endurance expedition and pointed out that Shackleton built alignment by rolling his sleeves up and doing all the same jobs his team was doing (e.g. scrubbing the floors). Can anyone here imagine Mike writing an IWD and hand carrying it to all the FOD signoffs? Entering his own receipts into Concur? Working in an office with a leaky roof and shit-filled drinking water? Waiting an hour for a KSL taxi to take him to White Rock for Rad II testout?

I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone here imagine Mike writing an IWD and hand carrying it to all the FOD signoffs? Entering his own receipts into Concur? Working in an office with a leaky roof and shit-filled drinking water? Waiting an hour for a KSL taxi to take him to White Rock for Rad II testout?

I don't think so.

8/16/09 8:47 AM

Let's do better. Can anyone here imagine Mikey being forced out his job by a hateful Brett Knapp in the Weapons Program, then being forced to clean up legacy mixed waste, and have him move himself off the 7th floor NSSB, and work in a mouse infested transportable horse stall shed at TA-46? Let's also reduce and freeze his salary, demote him, and let's serve up a little reprisal on him. Oh let's not forget to take away his free flight and government subsidized automobile bennies from him. Mikey can't imagine why his subordinate management isn't living his experience at the Lab because their not.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, 6 yrs ago we were switched from Blue Cross to UHC. The rationale given at that time was pretty much the same, that we would see an "improvement in claims processing". That switch ended up being quite disruptive for many employees, especially those of us with on-going treatments.

Now, six years later, we are being switched back and again we are to expect disruptions. Surely looks an awful lot like activity for the sake of activity. Although to be fair not quite as painful as taking away drinkable water, or having your emails not delivered or your work computer messed up by incompetent clowns and disconnected from the network. Those activities for activity's sake surely hurt more. Yours is just, as they say, "another brick in the wall".

Anonymous said...


To put the comments here in proper prospective, consider that at least since the reign of Nanos whenever something changed at LANL it was almost universally for the worse. So people are naturally repelled by yet another change that threatens to drop their health coverage (!) unless they file a form on time.

It is not a personal attack on you, but it is a damning indictment of the system!

Anonymous said...

The statement about lack of trust is really true. We do not trust LANS management and Mikey in particular to do anything except that which, respectively, maximizes the award fee and his bonus!

Anonymous said...

"We give a crap, and we don't want you canceled." (Greg)

Greg, I believe YOU give a crap.

However, I'm positive that Mikey and his executives don't give a shit about the work force under them.

As many others have stated, there is no longer any trust left in LANS. The LANS for-profit upper management is now hated by most employees and held in total disgust. They've earned it.

Anonymous said...

All LANS really cares about at this point is zero incidents for safety and security. It earns high executive salaries, nice bonuses and the fat annual profit fees for the all important Bechtel and BWXT LLC partners.

The rest of that productive 'science stuff' can be easily glossed over by using an expensive Madison Avenue type PR firm to make LANS look brilliant in the media. If memory serves me right, I believe LANS hired such a firm about two years ago.

Greg Close said...

@ 8/16/09 10:26 AM Yes, it was about six years ago that UC transitioned from BCBS of NM (then owned and operated by a different parent corp) to UHC. A lot has changed in six years, and it really is due diligence in this business to go out to bid every 3 years or so. In an environment where costs escalate at the rate of benefits, this is one of the only ways to get some concessions. We didn't go out to bid expecting anyone to take business away from UHC, we just gave everyone a fair shot and BCBS of NM had the best bid. By the way, LANS mgt didn't ask us to go out to bid, so it wasn't part of any plan they had to achieve any savings or bonus etc. This was just the "normal course of doing business."

I really fundamentally disagree with your characterization that going out to bid and changing carriers after SIX years is just "activity for the sake of activity." But, my piece has been said, so I'm done. We can agree to disagree. I respect your skepticism, and take it as a challenge to earn your respect that we did this for the right reasons.

Anonymous said...

I also work in benefits, and I often post here, more about retirement issues than other benefits. Greg has indicated his intent to leave in the not to distant future, but I promise that truthful postings, whatever the benefit issue, will continue in his absence. We believe benefits are very important to everyone and we therefore try diligently to counter the mindless rantings and baseless allegations that are a regular feature. We work hard to continue to provide the best overall benefit value for LANS employees. I challenge you to find another workplace where life and disability benefit costs have gone down significantly for employees and where medical premiums have been flat or have decreased over the last two years. If this is the result of our "activity for the sake of showing activity", then you better hope we keep it up.

Anonymous said...

People in Benefits are watching out for the employees' and retirees' best interest. After all, people in Benefits use the health care too and will retiree off this same system.

Anonymous said...

My last experience with BCBS of NM was not good. I had one of my kids on an individual policy with them about 2 years ago. When some medical incidents appeared, they mandated a furious amount of paper work for medical reviews. In the end, they terminated his coverage all the way back to the issue date and refused to pay any of his medical benefits. It ended up costing me a huge amount of money to cover his medical expenses.

The fact that BCBS of NM is being selected based on their ability to bring the claim payments down is not comforting. I sense that LANL employees are about to be squeezed on their medical coverage.

Greg Close said...

@ 8/17/09 10:42 AM I understand your concern, but Group Policies are a lot different than Individual Policies. LANL controls eligibility and benefits, and BCBS provides the network and the claims administration. BCBS cannot drop you because of any cost you incur, illness you develop etc. This is why Group Coverage is so valuable. The claims savings aren't achieved by BCBS denying services (since LANL controls plan design, and we aren't changing covered services) they are achieved by network discounts, provider discounts, and maximizing our EPO network.

Anonymous said...

I thought everyone was mad several years back when the lab switched from BC/BS to United so for whatever reason I thought there would be happiness throughout the lab over this one.

Anonymous said...

There are two very positive things about United Health Care.

First, one no longer had to go thru the primary care physician to get a referral. I suspect UHC figured out that was a cost of an un-necessary office visit.

Second, UHC put a representative at LANL. This guy is a saint. He has handled many complaints immediately.

But, with both BC/BS and UHC, I had lots of adventures trying to get claims resolved. Both function in the "always deny first" mode. Twice I had claims for "pre-approved" procedures denied. The person made the statement the "just because it is pre-approved does not mean that we will pay it."

UHC has a really aweful reputation with providers in Santa Fe. I told a few of them about the change to BC/BS and they stated that they are looking forward to it.

That said, still I expect that the employees will somehow get screwed in this.

Anonymous said...

If I understand LANL's medical insurance setup, the carriers (be it United or BCBS) are just the processors for the claims. They don't carry any insurance risk in taking on the LANL contract.

It is the lab operating budget that ends up paying for the medical expenses used by lab employees. Thus, any fears about a future squeeze on lab medical claims should be direct toward LANS and not toward BCBS of NM.

BCBS will follow orders and only do what LANS tells them to do... sort of like how LANS does only what NNSA tells them to do.

Anonymous said...

LANS does indeed assume the risk for healthcare costs. BCBS will also have a dedicated and regularly onsite representative just as UHC did. The plan benefits will not change for the most part, and EPO folks still will not have to go to a primary care physician for a referral to a specialist. Almost three-quarters of our folks are in the EPO and for us the only thing that will change will likely be the card we carry around.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, man. Yanking the contract from BCBS to UHC and back does not automatically constitute "good business practice". Gives you something to do, for sure, but are the benefits going to outweigh the major disruption this will cause?

The old BCBS plan was OK. Right after the transition to UHC in 2004, things were pretty rocky for the first year. UHC had pretty much no network in northern nm and needed to build it up. After a while, things settled. In the last several years, they became as good as they were before the switch. Time to yank the contract back, I guess.

Many contracts have been changed across the Lab in the name of "good business practices". Take the rental car contract. It was yanked from Budget and given to Hertz/National. It only makes sense to rebid the contract every now and then, right? Well, the only lasting effect of that change is that car rentals now tend to cost the Lab more. Even though the official rate still is $38/day, when you actually try to make a reservation, you often find Hertz charging $50/day. At the same time, you can get $38/day on national, but the contract is written in such a way, you are not allowed to use National at $38 if Hertz has cars at $50. Brilliant! "Best business practices", no doubt. And this is just one example.

Back to the health plan. My guess is that is that after a lot of aggravation upfront things will again settle into a pretty good state with BCBS and we'll be as happy with the new plan as we are now. You want to show your concern is really about the LANL workers, not just to keep reshuffling things around? Go and actually check what works and what doesn't. While the health plan we have is good, the dental plan is awful. The $1,500 cap hasn't changed in ages, while the procedure costs kept rising. The plan is very stingy paying claims and most dentists around simply don't want to be in the network. How about changing that one?!

Greg Close said...

@8/18/09 9:26 AM I didn't say giving BCBS a contract was automatic. Please re-read my post. I said GOING OUT TO BID was a good business practice. Actually awarding the business was based on a lot of hard work, analysis and benchmarking. And yes, the benefits will outweigh the minimal disruption this will cause for most employees.

As for the dental plan... there is no one else with a network who can compete with Delta Dental in Los Alamos. We have checked, and no one had anything worthwhile up here but Delta. Also, if you think a $1500 annual max is "low" then you haven't done a comparative analysis of corporate benefit offerings. $1000 is a more common annual max (as of 2007)*. Also, did you notice that your dental benefits are FREE? Do the math, if you were paying even 20% of the annual premium for Family Dental that's a savings of about $288/annually. So, essentially you are complaining that your free dental plan has an above average annual max... ?

The yearly maximum is the most money that the dental insurance plan will pay within one full year. The yearly maximum will automatically renew every year. If you have unused benefits, these will not roll over. Most dental insurance companies allow an average yearly maximum of $1,000.

There are many more places to confirm that, so just look it up.

Anonymous said...

OK, let's be serious here for a second. Nobody is "complaining that your free dental plan has an above average annual max". Above-average among what set? Are we looking at other employers with similarly large buying power? Or are we throwing everything into the mix?

Pointing to is not really an answer. We all can google. What would be interesting to learn is when the LANL dental contract was last rebid and what bids were submitted. That would've been a factual response.

Thank you.

Greg Close said...

@ 8/18/09 11:21 AM
I'm sorry - perhaps I misinterpreted 8/18/09 9:26 AM's comment. It certainly looked like a complaint that the dental plan, which is free, had too low an annual max. I responded with a fact - that $1000 is the industry average - and I backed it up with one quote from an impartial source. I added that it was but one of many, and still - it's more than you provided or anyone else on this blog provides when they complain, so why now are suddenly holding me to a different standard in backing up what I say?

As for "factual" - my response was "factual." Perhaps you meant to say "complete" since I didn't address certain questions that you wanted answered. You might note that the questions you wanted answered weren't actually asked, so I was operating under a bit of a handicap, there.

So, now that you've asked it - the last time we examined the dental plan for a bid was 2007. Research showed there was no competition with acceptable network depth. All national carriers were assessed. We declined to even bid the business on those grounds.

Furthermore, if the complaint is the "low" annual max then that has nothing to do with bidding the business. That is a design decision. And since you brought it up, yes - the average max of $1k is for businesses with similar and larger buying power. We are a big fish in Northern New Mexico, but a small to moderate fish in the National pond. I've paid more for dental insurance, with a $1k annual plan max, at all my previous employers whose benefit budget is more than 10 times that of this laboratory.