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Q & A With Erika Van Flein, Director Benefits

Peter and Erika Van Flein stopped at Grand Canyon when they were on route to Jemez Springs, New Mexico where Erika ran a marathon around an old caldera.

Health and Fittness Lifestyle—Erika Van Flein

As director of benefits, Van Flein oversees employee benefits administration, including health care, retirement, disability and life insurance, for benefits-eligible employees across the state.

Van Flein, a lifelong Fairbanks resident, joined the university in 1990, working as an administrative assistant in University Relations at UAF. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin.

She is the daughter of Professor Emeritus Carl Benson and Ruth Benson, who worked as a nurse at the student health center.

Van Flein is an avid runner, and is on a personal quest to run a marathon in all 50 states. Her personal commitment to health makes her both a spokesperson and a shining example for promoting health and wellness at the University of Alaska.

Your family has a long history the University of Alaska Fairbanks—your father as a professor and your mother a nurse in the student health center—how did their careers influence your perception of the university?

The university has been a second home to me. My dad was involved in pioneering research at the Geophysical Institute in ice, snow and ice fog in the 60’s and 70’s. My mom was a RN who pursued further education to become an ANP while working at UAF.

You were born and raised in Fairbanks, but went to college at the University of Wisconsin. What did you study there? What brought you back to Fairbanks? Why do you continue to call it home?

I attended my first year at UAF right out of high school. I couldn’t decide on a major and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t do so well with some of my faculty being people I’d babysat for when I was in high school, and had known since I was a child. It just seemed hard to make that transition from “friends and family” to “faculty/student.” My dad saw me struggling with it and told me to follow my heart. “Do what you love, and the job will come later.” I took a year off, worked at a low-paying retail job, and tried to figure out what I wanted to do.

Dad’s comment had me thinking about my true passion, horses, and how I could combine horses, school and family in an education and career plan. With family in the Minneapolis area and southern Minnesota, and a school with a horse sciences program nearby, I decided a degree in Agriculture in Horse Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls was what I needed to pursue.

I always knew I wanted to return to Alaska, and figured I’d work out how the degree would help me here at a later date. After graduation, I came back to Alaska and got a job at Nordstrom. I’m still trying to figure out how that “the job will come later” comes into play!

Family is very important to me. Fairbanks is home for me and my husband, although he says, “we get time off for good behavior,” and our families are here. Both my parents and siblings are in Fairbanks, as are his mother and both sisters. His brother and family are in Anchorage. As long as we have strong family ties to Fairbanks, we’ll probably stay here. After all, this place grows on you after awhile!

Celebrating Thanksgiving in paradise near Poipu Beach, Kauai. Kristoffer, Van Flein's youngest, (right) is stationed at Camp Smith on Oahu, and he had limited time off so the family all went over to Kauai to be with him. It was great!

You have two children. Do they attend the university?

Isaac, my oldest son, will be a senior at UAF next fall in biological sciences. My youngest, Kristoffer, decided that school was not for him, at least not right away, and he joined the U.S. Marines. He’s currently stationed at Camp Smith in Hawaii. He wants to return to Alaska though, and we’ll see what he wants to do when he gets back. Between their grandparents and parents, both boys knew all along that education was very important, and that we’d support them in whatever they wanted to do. All you can do is offer them love and support, guidance when you can, and let them find their path.

What was your first role at the university? Where did your career take you from there?

After Nordstrom closed in 1990, I took business and office classes at UAF during the summer and applied for an administrative assistant job at UAF in the fall. My customer service skills from Nordstrom were a big plus in getting the job at University Relations. I have always been interested in HR and benefits so becoming the department’s PPA seemed a natural next step. When the benefits coordinator position opened up here at SWHR, I applied right away and was hired in August 1996. I’ve been here ever since, and took to learning everything I could about benefits administration and UA’s plans. When Mike Humphrey left SWHR in August 2011, a recruitment for the director position was held and I was named to the position in early December.

When we think about benefits many of us stop at health care—our medical, vision, dental and pharmacy coverage—but our total benefits comprise life insurance, retirement, savings accounts, disability coverage, worker’s compensation, educational benefits and leave programs. What aspects of our benefit programs do you see as providing the greatest value to UA employees? How do we rate in comparison to other major Alaska employers?

The university’s benefits program is comprehensive. Many employees don’t realize nor remember that they have some of the benefits, but when the need arises, they can be a true blessing. I’m talking mainly about the basic life insurance and long-term disability benefits. Our basic life insurance, paid 100 percent by the university, offers $50,000 of protection to every benefit-eligible employee. You just identify who gets the proceeds if you pass away. Compare this to the state of Alaska’s basic life insurance benefit of $2,000 to $10,000, depending on employee type.

UA’s supplemental life insurance is available up to $200,000 with no medical information, and up to $400,000 if you pass the medical standards. The state’s supplemental life benefit caps at $100,000 for a select group of employees; most have a limit of $60,000.

The long-term disability benefit offers up to 60 percent income replacement (to a maximum benefit of $3,000 a month) if you become disabled and are unable to work. This is an excellent benefit offering a real safety net, but because it rides in the background, most employees are not aware it’s there. The state of Alaska’s disability plan has more options, but is entirely paid for by the employee.

Our retirement program is very generous, with many employees grandfathered into the PERS or TRS defined benefit plans. In addition, we offer an Optional Retirement Plan (ORP) to employees first hired after July 1, 2006 (prior to that, only faculty and officers/senior administrators were eligible). Between the employer contribution (12 percent) and the employee contribution (8 percent), the plan contributes 20 percent of your earnings into a retirement plan. Add in the UA Pension Plan (7.65 percent of salary up to $42,000), and you have a significant amount put aside for your future retirement. Add in the ability for you to voluntarily contribute up to $17,500 to a 403(b) (also called a tax-deferred annuity, or TDA), and you’re talking important retirement savings. Compare this to many other employers offering a 401(k) where you might get an employer match up to a percent of income (such as a match of 50 cents for every dollar you contribute, up to 6 percent or 10 percent of salary), and you might have to wait six months to a year before you can start in the plan.

The state of Alaska has PERS and TRS as well, but no ORP. They also have the Supplemental Benefit System (SBS) and a 457 (“deferred compensation”) plan. The plans offer comparable savings opportunities, but are managed and invested differently.

A new plan introduced last year, the Health Savings Account (HSA) allows employees to set aside a substantial amount of money that can be used for health care expenses now or in the future. The HSA has been called a “medical 401(k)” in that it offers triple tax advantages: tax free contributions, tax free earnings, and tax free distributions when used for health care expenses, even in retirement. The state of Alaska is considering the HSA, but they don’t have it yet.

Many employers provide some sort of education assistance benefit, but not many will cover 100 percent of dependent and spouse tuition after a six-month waiting period. With the increase in the maximum credits employees can take, this is an extremely valuable benefit to employees whether they have dependents or not.

The biggest value in our benefit plan is the ability to choose the plans that meet your needs, such as taking advantage of significant pre-tax benefits for health and retirement planning. Employees can realize tax savings immediately with the Flexible Spending Account or Health Savings Accounts, with pre-tax deductions for health care and retirement plans. We offer free financial guidance from our retirement fund sponsors, and access to a variety of tools, calculators and planners to help employees reach their retirement goals.

The Affordable Care Act has forced some changes to our plan design. Have there been positive results from these changes for employees and their dependents? What has been the fiscal impact of these changes?

Many of the changes required by health care reform are very beneficial to employees and their families. Some of the first changes we saw was increasing the maximum age for dependent children to 26, and no longer requiring that they be full-time students. It also removed the lifetime maximum benefit cap, expanded the preventive care benefit to include more services with no maximum benefit, eliminated pre-existing conditions requirements for children under 19, and this year the pre-existing conditions exclusion is gone for everyone coming onto the plan regardless of age.

One of the less beneficial changes was the reduction of the maximum amount that can be placed into a flexible spending account. The old limit was $5,000 but now we have to cap it at $2,500.

We provide the Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) to employees so they can easily compare the plans on a side-by-side basis. This helps to make it easier to figure out which plan might be best for you given your use of health care services.

It’s hard to actually say how much some of these changes actually cost as far as impact to the plan. Expanding the preventive care services could lead to short term increases, but if they help members catch chronic or serious illnesses early, we could pay less in the long run. Having older dependents on the plan is a cost driver, but it hasn’t been as expensive as most health plans were predicting. Last year, dependents as a category represented 35 percent of our covered population, but were only 18 percent of health care cost.

In the long run, what drives our costs are large claims over $100,000 in a plan year.   Many are from chronic illnesses and conditions that could have been more easily treated if caught early. This isn’t just an issue of dollars, but quality of life as well.

Even without the impacts of ACA health costs are rising. Employee contributions are much higher than in the past. How do we balance the cost of the plan with the value to employees? What is your role in that?

We work closely with the Joint Health Care Committee (JHCC) to adjust plan design and establish plan pricing. In recent years, the university made a shift in cost sharing from moving to 80/20 percent of net plan costs to a plan design that increases member responsibility. The university currently shares the net plan cost with employees at 82/18 percent and will keep it there for the time being. This change rewards employees who use the plan less while still offering protection to employees who have greater health care needs. All the plans have 100 percent preventive benefits for wellness exams, routine screenings and immunizations so everyone can get their regular checkups.

Our recent plan experience has been favorable, with decreasing costs the past two years. With the changes from the ACA, the impact of our wellness program and our aging population, the JHCC will keep a close eye on our plan to see what else might need to be done.

The new wellness program and incentive for submitting biometric information and completing the personal health assessment is big news right now.   What is the strategy behind our wellness program design? What factors are necessary for its success?

The main focus of our wellness program is to build awareness of our state of health, and offer tools and incentives to make lifestyle changes that can lead to better health. We need members to “know their numbers,” and take steps to improve where necessary. These efforts will not only lead to better health and lower claims costs, but a greatly improved quality of life. The biggest factor for success will be “member engagement,” which is a popular phrase that basically means getting employees and spouses to be involved and make the effort to improve their health.

You have been making presentations at campuses throughout the state as part of staff appreciation days and open enrollment. What kinds of concerns are you hearing from UA employees? What steps are being made to mitigate these concerns?

Most people are concerned that they can still have a meaningful level of benefits that the can afford, and they want to know what we’re doing to make that happen. By trying to communicate changes and why we’re making them, I think most people can understand and accept the change. I’m always willing to explain what we’re doing and the reasons behind plan and price changes. Working closely with the JHCC also ensures that employee voices are heard.

There is some concern and confusion regarding the transition into outcome-based wellness incentives. People who are well outside the norms of waist circumference, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure or glucose levels are not likely able to meet those standards in a year or two. How might the wellness program work for such individuals to still meet eligibility requirements for a discount? Isn’t improvement still a positive outcome?

Improvement is definitely a positive outcome! Any outcomes-based wellness program has to have reasonable alternatives available for those members who are unable to meet the standard. Medically appropriate alternatives can be established as needed by working directly with Healthyroads, and if necessary, a member’s physician.

The goal is to reward members who make positive lifestyle changes and make the effort to improve.

Do you see changes in the university’s culture regarding health and wellness?

I see people walking at lunchtime, or running on the trails much more than in the past. I really enjoy hearing from people who have taken steps to improve their health and their family’s well-being. Whether their steps are small or large, it is so encouraging to me to help them on their path to healthier living.

You are a very active person. You run marathons, and have a goal to complete a marathon in all 50 states. How close are you to that goal? Have you always been involved in these kinds of activities? What got you started, and what motivates you to continue?

What got me started? I saw a picture of me behind my youngest son when he was a couple years old, and I hardly recognized my legs. Oh my, that can’t be me! So I hit the gym hard, and between cardio, weights and eating smart, a low fat, high protein and carbohydrate diet, I shed about 25 pounds in a year. I started running after my husband and I went to a hotel in New Zealand that didn’t have a gym, but oh boy did they have nice running trails! So… I started running and didn’t look back. I ran my first marathon, the Equinox, in 2005 and loved the distance. It’s all history from there.

I’ve run marathons or ultras in 13 states, and will add Colorado this August. I love running, and I’m definitely a distance runner since I dislike anything shorter than 10k because it just feels too frantic. I’ve done 50k races here (Equinox) and California, and they do give you a little more forgiveness in your pacing strategy, but I mainly love the ambience and lower speed emphasis of these longer runs. That being said, I still love the marathon distance and will mostly pursue those.

VanFlein gathers fresh veggies from the garden after getting home from an evening run.

What else do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Obviously I love running, and try to make room for it wherever I go. But I also love gardening and have a big garden by my house. I also love reading, and have been enjoying my Kindle since its easier to carry on trips than even a paperback book.

My husband and I love food and wine, and we love trying new recipes and wines that will go with the food. There are so many ways to grill a steak, or make a meatloaf, or even grill vegetables, that it’s always a fun adventure. We also love to travel and hope to be able to do more of that in the future.

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