Friday, February 23, 2018

A prescription for victory: How one student just eliminated the age cap for Camosun students’ dental and medical plan

February 7, 2018 by Fred Cameron, features writer

The Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) advocates for Camosun students, negotiating with the government and the college. But who advocates for students who are in a dispute with the CCSS? Joseph Finkleman found himself asking that question late last year when he received an email from the CCSS informing him that on December 17, 2017 his student benefit plan would be terminated because he would be over the age of 70. He went to the college ombudsman, whose hands were tied because the benefits are outside of the college’s jurisdiction.

Finkleman felt that he had been discriminated against, and he was left to his own devices to fight this battle.

During the course of researching for, interviewing for, and writing this story, Finkleman’s concerns caused the CCSS to drop the clause in its medical and dental plan that states that students over 70 are not covered. Here’s how it happened.

A CREATIVE PATH TO CAMOSUN

Joseph Finkleman is currently in his second semester in the Comics and Graphic Novels program here at Camosun. Finkleman arrived at Camosun by a very different path than the one walked by most of his contemporaries. He’s from San Francisco, and originally from Hollywood. He earned a bachelor of Fine Arts and a master’s of Fine Arts from San Francisco Art Institute, and he minored in journalism. Finkleman says his passion for art and literature has ignited his drive to create and has brought his imagination to life, and here he is still learning at post-secondary at age 70.

Camosun College student Joseph Finkleman (photo by Fred Cameron/Nexus).

Professionally, Finkleman has dabbled in just about every aspect of the visual arts. He was a high-school teacher and taught children’s programs on animation and photography at various schools. He’s also had a 20-year career as a commercial photographer, as well as a stint owning an ad agency for about five years.

Finkleman has had his photography and painting shown at over 100 exhibits in museums and galleries, and he has always written on the side. At an art show of his in 2015, it was suggested to him that he try combining pictures and words. So he did, and he liked it a lot right from the start. That started him on a path toward graphic novels.

“The odd thing is that I’ve never read a graphic novel,” says Finkleman when I first sit down with him on Tuesday, January 16, “still, to this day. Amongst my colleagues, that is about as close to heresy as one can possibly get.”

Once the writing bug got him, there was no looking back. Finkleman says he started by looking around for courses in North America, at first in the United States.

“All of the instructors were qualified,” says Finkleman, “but not necessarily in the industry.”

He wanted to find the right fit, so Finkleman expanded his search to include other options abroad.

“I came across [Camosun instructor] Ken Steacy,” says Finkleman, “who is a real big deal, and he also happens to be a very fine instructor, which is usually not the case. I came up here to interview him last February, to see if we were going to be a good fit. I was very impressed with him personally, and I was very impressed with his work. It was a simple decision to come up to Victoria.”

“I took to Joseph right away,” says Steacy, “much due to the fact that he had done his due diligence. He had looked at schools all over the place, he had extensive experience in the arts and communications and advertising, but he had decided that he wants to be a visual storyteller, to put words and pictures together. He works so hard at doing that. He goes so far above and beyond what’s required. He will redo things that he isn’t satisfied with or if he doesn’t think he’s satisfying course requirements.”

According to Steacy, being a freelance artist is one of the most difficult careers out there. Students in the Comics and Graphic Novels program “are making a huge investment of time and treasure,” Steacy says. As a teacher, he found it very interesting to have someone who brings as much experience as Finkleman does to his classroom. Steacy was amazed by Finkleman’s desire to learn.

“We see that in most of our students, but it is rare to see such eagerness combined with his experience,” he says. “Joseph has an extremely sanguine disposition. He gets on famously with the other students. They look to him as a grandfather figure. I make it abundantly clear that this is an environment of mutual respect. Everyone has something to offer. We are all storytellers, and here at the college we aren’t necessarily looking for people who want to be great writers. I am looking for people who are passionate about something, because when we are passionate, the words just come—especially with people like Joseph, who have the desire to share their life experience. He has been a joy to work with.”

Finkleman and his wife Susan, who is taking Religious Studies at UVic, packed up and left San Francisco to begin a new chapter here in Victoria. The couple, along with their five cats, found an apartment in Oak Bay and settled in in time to start school last September. Finkleman says that Victoria seemed to be the perfect place to continue with his studies.

“It’s a wonderful place,” says Finkleman, who is here on a student visa. “I love Victoria, and I would live here if they would let me. People are wonderful; the school is great. It’s well run, but there are a few problems that most people would never notice—one of which is that there is a dearth of handicap parking spaces—and the other weird thing is that part of our student fees allow us to have a supplementary medical program.”

Camosun College collects student fees with tuition and remits them to the CCSS, which has a contract with insurance agency Great-West Life Assurance Company. The benefits plan, which is very similar to most plans for post-secondary schools across the country, states that students are no longer eligible at age 70. Finkleman turned 70 on December 17 of last year.

“I got an email [from the CCSS] that said, ‘You’d better come in and talk,’” says Finkleman. “I went down and they were very kind, and perplexed as to what to do. They’re stuck with the results of the contract. They refunded half of my fees. Nevertheless, once I turn 70, I no longer have benefits. I have not really experienced a great deal of discrimination in my life, so it’s quite a shock at this point in my life to be discriminated against strictly on age. There is a lot of PR about how everyone is to be treated equally, which I think is a great idea. Apparently, not exactly equally.”

Finkleman understands that if the insurance agency had a lot of people utilizing the benefits, premiums would have to go up, because the agency has to make a profit. He’s part of a very small demographic—only two Camosun students currently meeting the course requirements have been excluded due to age—and Finkleman says the economic impact of including people over 70 should not be high. Finkleman doesn’t see any unfairness in writing a clause into the contract that states that the insurance agency can raise premiums if the cost of benefits starts getting higher.

“There can’t be a lot of 70-year-old students, but it doesn’t really matter,” says Finkleman. “If you have even one… As soon as the student society says, ‘I’m really sorry, you’ve just turned 70, and you’re no longer eligible for our benefits; everyone else is eligible, but you are not because you’re over age,’ things have to change.”

PRESCRIPTION PRACTICALITIES

Finkleman says he had not even thought of the possibility of an age cap when he was contemplating possible schools, but it would not have affected his choice.

“Ken Steacy is who I wanted to study with,” he says.

Finkleman, who is required by immigration to be a full-time student, is covered by the provincial Medical Services Plan. He still has his medical coverage in the USA, but Finkleman says it’s very awkward to get prescriptions across the border. He can only bring back 30 days’ worth, so he brings an empty pill bottle, and they count them on the way back at customs. When he was faced with losing his student medical coverage, Finkleman and Susan were prepared for one of them to have to go over to Port Angeles to get his prescriptions every 30 days; otherwise, he would have to pay full price for his prescriptions here.

“I pay more for medical care than I did before.” says Finkleman, “by a lot, actually. Prescriptions are expensive. On my medical plan in the states, prescriptions are $5, regardless of what they cost. It’s just a paperwork expense. Here, I’m paying the full rate, and it’s eye-watering: $400 to $500 for myself, and about the same for my wife. That’s every 90 days; that is a significant amount of dough.”

Getting his medication without his student insurance would have been an ordeal for Finkleman. He would take the ferry over to Port Angeles; in the winter, the number of sailings on the ferry get reduced, so it isn’t possible to get back to Victoria in the same day; Finkleman would have had to stay in a motel overnight, which would have caused him to get behind on schoolwork.

“I can only get three continuous months at a time [on a prescription] before I have to see the doctor again,” he says. “That’s exactly how it is here, but the difference is I have to fly to Woodland, which is near San Francisco, to see my doctor. That’s a couple of days, just by the nature of airline schedules, and then going through customs both ways is always an adventure. I’m going to be here for several years while my wife is in school at UVic. There is nothing convenient about it.”

Finkleman stresses that despite all this, he’s fighting the student society’s insurance plan’s policy not because of the cost, but because he feels it’s discriminatory.

“The issue is, how can they discriminate against age? I don’t get that,” he says. “I would love to have someone explain why I can be singled out because I’m over 70. I resent that. For me, there’s an impact, but it’s not a fatal impact. But there will be someone somewhere who will utilize the services of the school, or any school for that matter, and it will become an issue, and it will be expensive. It can be solved today, before it’s a problem, or you can wait until it’s a problem.”

CHANGES AFOOT

The first health and dental benefit plan for Camosun students was negotiated in 1999; current CCSS executive director Michel Turcotte was present for the negotiations. He says that the age cap of 70 was built into the initial plan. I caught up with Turcotte on Thursday, January 18 to discuss Finkleman’s concerns.

“Similar language was written into every student plan in the country,” says Turcotte. “The first plan was just sort of accepted. That was in the early days for student plans in British Columbia. Those plans were based on employer plans and modified for the student market. All employer plans had retirement-age language built in to keep their costs down. At that time, there was a mandatory retirement age in British Columbia and most other provinces. Since 1999, mandatory retirement has been eliminated in most jurisdictions, and a lot of employers have modified their plans to accommodate this.”

Historically, Camosun hasn’t had a huge issue with the benefits age cap. Turcotte says the college has in recent years been getting a few more mature students who have been advocating in relation to this. Turcotte says that in previous years, the student society made some exceptions; he says some students were reimbursed for their costs, which was essentially the same as providing benefits.

“We don’t just cut them off,” says CCSS Lansdowne health plan administrator Christine Desrochers. “We notify them and let them know that this is the way the plan is designed—at this age we can no longer offer these benefits. I go above and beyond to make sure they know and understand in advance. I go through the list every year to find if there is anyone who will be facing this, and if we do discover anybody, unfortunately, I have to let them know that at 70, they will be cut off.”

However, when I met with Turcotte on January 18, some steps had been taken to change this policy.

“In light of Joseph’s story,” says Turcotte, “I reached out to our broker to inquire about the matter. We try to treat all students equitably. Whether you are on a student loan or not, or if you’re an international student, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re a member, you should expect equal treatment.” (“At least they’re looking at it,” says Finkleman when I reach him to update him on Tuesday, January 23. “I think that’s a cool thing.”)

There is an annual renewal process with the insurers and the broker, which, according to Turcotte, is usually completed by June. He says it would likely be quite feasible to lift that ceiling in terms of the health and dental plan, but it may not be possible to provide equitable coverage in all four areas for students—health, dental, accidental death or dismemberment, and travel insurance—above an age ceiling.

“There are a few established networks for health and dental plan providers in the country,” says Turcotte, “and [broker] Gallivan [and Associates, which the CCSS uses] is one of the larger ones. They have one school in their network that has actually lifted the age cap—Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto doesn’t have the age limit. Now we have the opportunity to look into the plan, and the freedom to change that, at least in terms of the health and dental plan.” (Ryerson did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

During this intitial interview, Turcotte told me that the CCSS had formally requested that Gallivan seek a quote from Great-West Life Assurance in relation to lifting the cap on the health and dental plan.

“I look forward to considering a quote that includes members of all ages in our health and dental insurance plan,” says Turcotte. “Perhaps others like us will examine the issue and try to modify it in some way.”

Finkleman says that the basic problem with all this is the age discrimination; he says that maybe the way around it is not to change policy but for the CCSS to ensure that it’s always willing to help out students one way or another.

“They may find that, on the rare occasions that it actually happens, that it’s cheaper to pay it out of their reserve fund,” says Finkleman. “They might just conclude that there is no viable way to go forward and people over age will continue to be discriminated against, and that’s just the way it is.”

 

On Monday, January 29, after this story had been written and was being edited, Turcotte told Nexus that the CCSS was officially changing its insurance policy so that students over 70 would be able to get medical  and dental coverage. (At press time, he couldn’t confirm when the new policy would be official, but he said that he had requested that the change take effect for February 1, 2018 and that it be backdated if it takes longer than that for the paperwork to go through.)

“Now we can add ‘activist’ to his resume,” says Steacy after hearing about the age cap being lifted. “Go, Joseph!”

I caught up with Finkleman on Wednesday, January 31 to tell him the age cap had been lifted. We walked to his car across campus together as we discussed the policy change. Finkleman’s smile cut through the rain as he chuckled, saying, “It was the right decision that they made.”

“I’m really glad that the glitch has been cleaned up,” he told me. “[The age cap] wasn’t life threatening, but it was an irritant that shouldn’t have been. How often does that happen in life? We see it in the news all the time that the people in power say, ‘This is a problem. I think we will address it next year.’ I’m really very heartened by the fact that we just took care of it. That is quite an achievement, in my experience.”

Finkleman says he’s pleased to see that the CCSS is representing its students.

“It’s generally very difficult to have a structured organization respond in a human manner,” he says. “It isn’t typical.”

We arrived at his car and exchanged a smile and handshake. As we parted ways, Finkleman said, “What a wonderful experience this has been.”

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