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Universal to drop health insurance for part-time workers [Orlando Sentinel]

By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 20--Universal Orlando plans to stop offering medical insurance to part-time employees beginning next year, a move the resort says has been forced by the federal government's health-care overhaul.

The giant theme-park resort, which generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue, began informing employees this month that it will offer health-insurance to part-timers "only until December 31, 2013."

The reason: Universal currently offers part-time workers a limited insurance plan that has low premiums but also caps the payout of benefits. For instance, Universal's plan costs about $18 a week for employee-only coverage but covers only a maximum of $5,000 a year toward hospital stays. There are similar caps for other services.

Those types of insurance plans -- sometimes referred to as "mini-med" plans -- will no longer be permitted under the federal Affordable Care Act. Beginning in 2014, the law will prohibit insurance plans that impose annual monetary limits on essential medical care such, as hospitalization, or on overall spending.

Universal is one of the largest employers in Central Florida, with approximately 17,000 employees. It has thousands of part-time workers, though Universal said only about 500 of them are enrolled in the current insurance plan, as many part-timers are covered by a parent's or spouse's insurance.

"We care about our team members and we want them to have best, most-affordable medical benefits we can provide," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said Tuesday. "This particular issue affects about 3 percent of our 17,000 team members, and we're going to continue to work toward a solution."

Universal said it would not save any money by dropping the part-time insurance plans. The resort said it currently does not spend anything itself on plan -- it only negotiates a group rate through Florida Hospital and then helps facilitate employee enrollment.

Critics of mini-med insurance plans say they ultimately provide little protection for workers, with meager payout limits that are nowhere near enough to cover medical emergencies. Supporters argue they are a realistic option for low-paid, limited-hour workers who can't afford better plans.

Other large employers are grappling with the same issue as Universal.

A spokesman for Orlando-based Darden Restaurants said Tuesday its limited-coverage plans will "go away after this year," as well.

"We'd like to have the option to continue offering them, since they are popular with our part-time employees, but the ACA doesn't offer that type of flexibility," spokesman Rich Jeffers said. "There is still a lot we don't know about the new health-care regulations for 2014, but we are committed to helping all of our employees navigate through the new environment as we learn more."

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Walt Disney World has about 1,400 part-time employees enrolled in limited plans. A spokeswoman for the resort would say only that Disney is "still assessing the health-care reform act and how it impacts our business."

"They have not talked to us about it yet," added Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here! Local 362, which represents some of Disney's part-time employees.

SeaWorld Orlando, too, offers some limited-benefit plans to part-time and seasonal workers. The company said it is "currently assessing options."

Other large businesses nationwide have also been paring back benefits for part-time workers. Two years ago, for instance, Wal-Mart Stores stopped offering health coverage to new part-time employees who work less than 24 hours a week on average. Last year, the world's largest retailer raised that threshold to 30 hours a week.

Still, Universal's announcement has angered some employees, who say the resort can afford to provide more-comprehensive health insurance for its part-time workers. Universal Orlando's immediate parent company, Universal Parks & Resorts, generated approximately $950 million in operating cash flow last year, up 10 percent from a year ago.

A few large employers -- most notably Starbucks Corp. -- offer comprehensive health insurance even to part-time workers.

jrgarcia@tribune.com or 407-420-5414

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(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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