CalPERS' decision to get tougher on dependent eligibility checks for medical insurance presents a ticklish public relations challenge for an agency that has long prided its customer service-oriented reputation.
If the system's amnesty message is too feeble, it will be ignored. Come on too strong, and CalPERS risks backlash from offended employees and retirees.
The system's message strikes a balance between amnesty and enforcement of enrollment rules with the savings and greater good that will come from eliminating the cost of carrying people who shouldn't be covered.
"At CalPERS, we know that health care is important to you and your family," the system said in a letter to members. "As part of our commitment to control health care costs and promote the sustainability of our health benefits ..."
Still, some subscribers such as retiree Dave Smith were incensed when they read the letter. They saw it as a guilty-until-proven-innocent warning.
"The word 'amnesty.' It came across like, 'We know there's a lot of you cheating out there,'" Smith said in a telephone interview. He was upset that the fund was asking for relationship documentation it could figure out on its own.
He thought about consulting a lawyer, but has since reconsidered. And when told that CalPERS has contracted with a firm that specializes in authenticating dependent relationships for insurers, the program made more sense to him.
"I do think it's a good program for them to clear the rolls," Smith said. "But did they have to make everybody mad with this letter?"
Sanjay Varshney, the dean of Sacramento State's business school, said his first reaction to the letter was, "Don't you trust me?"
Then he thought about how the times have changed: Stores insist on a receipt for returning merchandise. Airports don't let you meet passengers at the gate for security reasons. Not all that long ago, employers didn't check whether your wife really was your wife. The default assumption was that the dependents on an employee's plan were qualified.
"The CalPERS policy shows how our society is changing," Varshney said. "This is the world we live in."
CalPERS provided a copy of the letter, which you can read here.
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