JEFFERSON CITY - After a filibuster in which the University of Missouri system was repeatedly attacked as uncooperative and secretive, the Missouri Senate put on hold debate of a bill that would consolidate health care of all state employees.
The UM system opposes the bill in its current form, which it says would cause an annual increase of $55 million in costs to the system and its faculty and staff.
UM officials argued that the university should be given the option of choosing whether it wants to be included in the consolidated plan. Under the current proposal, all other four-year institutions have the opportunity to decide whether to participate.
"We have an extremely efficient system that's relatively inexpensive and provides very good benefits," said UM spokesman Joe Moore. "We don't want it taken out of the hands of those who have developed it and then see it rolled into something less effective and more expensive."
Supporters of the bill say the current health care system is in need of reform because it is expensive, fragmented and unresponsive to health care issues.
The bill would create an 11-member Division of Community Health -- including a member of the UM Board of Curators -- which would be responsible for developing a consolidated health care plan.
Unless a pending amendment requiring a concurrent resolution passes, the health care programs of all state employees would automatically be cosolidated under the division's authority in July 2004.
Supporters of the bill note that the legislature can always decide to reverse their decision to consolidate the programs if the division indicates that consolidation would be disadvantageous. Also, under the measure, individual parties — such as UM — can be permitted to opt out of the consolidated program if a majority of the division votes to allow it to do so.
Many of the senators expressed frustration at MU's refusal to cooperate, noting that the university has hired a lobbyist whose sole responsibility is to kill the bill. All UM employees also received an e-mail that urged them to ask their senators to oppose the bill.
"I don't think that they are responding to this legislative body in a way that a public institution should respond," said Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla.
"You can talk about control all you want, but they are a public institution and they are accountable to the taxpayers of this state," she said.
But Ken Hutchinson, UM vice president for human resources, said the university used private funds to hire the lobbyist and did so because of the weight the decision carries.
"We would have much preferred not to have hired a lobbyist or anyone else, but the stakes are pretty high," he said. "For 164 years, the Board of Curators has been given the responsibility to set the terms and conditions of employment for its faculty and staff, and this, in effect, would place that responsibility with another entity."
The bill's sponsor, Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia, accused the university of being excessively protective of its authority, saying that it has been unwilling to provide information and discuss the situation openly. He said there isn't anything in the bill that would harm the university.
"Why don't they want to play?" Mathewson asked. "I'll tell you why they don't want to play: It's because they're hiding something."
Hutchinson denied that claim and asserted that the university has been cooperative.
"The university has absolutely nothing to hide," he said. "We have offered to provide what limited expertise we might have to the state in designing and some of the financial underpinnings of the program so that they, too, might have a program that is a little more cost efficient than what is the current case with the consolidated plan."
Missourian Staff Writer David Bracken contributed to this report