Issues on the Table: Emergency Travel Health Benefits for All Members Regardless of Age

Travel is an important part of academic work. Academics travel to work collaboratively with other academics, to attend conferences, and to give guest lectures and public lectures on their work. While we can do much more online than we thought before, the pandemic has also reinforced the value of face-to-face meetings. There are also researchers whose work has been fundamentally hampered or delayed by travel restrictions: those whose work involves studying subjects such as wildlife, archaeological history, geographical features, or cultures that are not found locally. Some of this travel is necessarily outside the province, and Alberta Health care generally does not come close to covering costs that may be incurred if a health emergency arises abroad.

For this reason, the extended health benefits for academic staff at the University of Lethbridge include comprehensive travel insurance coverage. The plan covers costs up to $5 million per incident, including emergency evacuation, hospital stays, cost of travel for visitors, etc. The family benefit plan covers such costs for family members as well as for the member.

The problem

The problem with our out-of-province emergency health insurance arose when mandatory retirement at the age of 65 ended. Thereafter, the Board informed ULFA that Blue Cross would not provide this insurance for members over the age of 65. This policy has since changed, but it remains the case that after a member turns 65, the insurance only covers them for trips of 30 days or less, and once they turn 75 they no longer receive any coverage. 

The positions

ULFA’s position is that if a member undertakes travel that relates to their employment duties, the Board’s failure to provide them with coverage during such trips on the basis of their age is a fundamental inequity. Older members are being denied access to a contractually-established benefit that is required for the fulfilment of a fundamental aspect of their employment responsibilities. The Board’s negotiating team has said that coverage for older members is not possible within the Blue Cross plan, and has not indicated any interest in pursuing other options for providing such coverage. Their stated position is that older members must buy private travel insurance in order to be covered, and may have the cost reimbursed from their professional supplements, if they have adequate funds.

ULFA’s full proposal package tabled on January 18, 2021 included a Schedule B proposal that addressed the current inequity in Emergency Travel Benefits for members age 65 and over. All subsequent Schedule B proposals presented by the ULFA negotiation team have included Emergency Travel Benefits for all members, including the most recent proposal sent to the Board negotiation team on February 12, 2022.

ULFA has proposed that the union and the Board establish a joint committee to oversee how benefit contributions are spent.  Age limitations on the emergency travel health benefit is an issue that could usefully be considered by such a Joint Benefits Management Committee, if we had one.