Conservatives rejoice in Harvard healthcare lament

Harvard's 2013 commencement procession. Image copyright Getty Images

Some people may find it hard to listen to Harvard University professors complain about money with a straight face.

In 2012 the school paid an average annual salary of $198,400 (£130,000) to each full professor, according to a survey from the American Association of University Professors.

As the New York Times reports, however, a group of Harvard professors are currently up in arms over an increase in their 2015 healthcare costs.

For many conservatives it was sweet irony to hear members of the school's faculty - a number of whom championed President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act - complain about their own healthcare benefits.

"Unfortunately for Harvard profs, karma is a pre-existing condition not covered by Obamacare," Breitbart's Joel Pollak tweets.

Until now Harvard professors have dodged upticks in the cost of their own plans, but the school writes in its 2015 benefits open-enrolment guide that it "must respond to the national trend of rising healthcare costs, including some driven by heathcare reform".

This doesn't mean that Harvard's benefits are stingy, however. The New York Times reports that the plan pays for 91% of the cost of services, while the typical coverage for someone on a silver plan, the most popular choice on the Obamacare individual-insurance market, is about 70%.

Like others adhering to the Affordable Care Act, university employees will pay deductibles and a share of healthcare costs such for items like surgery, tests and hospitalisation. Their annual deductible is $250 (£165) individually and $750 for each family. They also will pay $20 for each doctor visit.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Harvard President Drew Faust says the new healthcare costs are 'locked in'

In a letter to Harvard's faculty and staff, University President Drew Faust acknowledges that the changes in benefits were upsetting to some, but she said the rates were locked in for the year after months of negotiations.

"I hope, however, that we can mitigate some of the current anxiety as we simultaneously assess the impact of these changes in the year ahead," she writes.

The New York Times quotes Richard F Thomas, a professor at the school and a leading authority on the Roman poet Virgil, as saying the changes are "deplorable, deeply regressive, a sign of the corporatisation of the university".

As expected, these criticisms have been heralded by some who see this as another example of left-leaning ignorance about Mr Obama's healthcare initiative.

"Harvard profs are learning, extremely belatedly, what smart people knew from Day One: Obamacare is disruptive and expensive," write the editors of the Chicago Tribune. "All of that free care is not free. Someone has to pay. Make that: everyone has to pay. No exceptions for Harvard professors."

The Harvard professors are also taking fire from the left, albeit for different reasons. According to Slate's Helaine Olen, these professors simply fail to understood what Obamacare does - and doesn't - do.

"Heathcare reform solved one issue - the uninsured and the uninsurable - but left the bigger one outstanding: costs continue to climb," writes Slate's Helaine Olen. "Harvard's protesting professors might be overprivileged and clueless, but their mistake wasn't in getting angry. Their mistake was in not linking their health insurance woes to what the rest of us are already going through."

Olen writes that the problem with the Affordable Care Act is that the cost of medical bills has been shifted onto the country's middle class rather than being reduced in the first place. But she also writes that the challenge is much more complicated than simple cost-shifting.

Instead, she says, Obamacare ignores complex issues about deductibles, breadth of coverage and hospitals' pricing of procedures.

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait writes that overall, however, the right-wing reaction to these professors is misplaced.

Chait says conservatives who oppose Obamacare think the problem isn't that plans such as the silver option are too cheap - it's that they're too generous.

"The Harvard story demonstrated two things," he writes. "First, Obamacare is implementing some versions of conservative ideas. Second, even moderate versions of this reform tend to upset consumers."

MSNBC's Steve Benen agrees. If conservatives looked a little more closely, he says, they'd find that the plan Harvard has enacted reflects healthcare reform's efforts to bring more market influence into the health insurance sector - "exactly the kinds of changes the right wants to see".

"When it comes to healthcare policy," he concludes, "the right is so eager to complain, it no longer finds it necessary to understand what it is conservatives are complaining about."

(By Kierran Petersen)