Tell It to the Boss

After their hospital's merger with Memorial, Hermann employees are asked prying questions

If employees at the former Hermann Hospital want to keep their basic medical coverage and qualify for good-health bonus programs, they're going to have to search their souls.

Starting July 1, a whole new system of medical insurance coverage goes into place for the Hermann part of the new Memorial Hermann Healthcare System. Employees had until May 15 to fill out an 81-page questionnaire that wades into territory more often covered in a doctor's office or on a psychiatrist's couch than on an employer's insurance enrollment form.

For instance: "Are you planning to get pregnant in the next year or two?"
"In the past two weeks, on how many days did you drink any alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine or liquor?"

"How often do you use drugs or medicines that affect your mood, help you relax, or help you sleep?"

The questions get tougher. "Have you or your partner had more than one sex partner in the last five years?"

And there's the check-if-true section:
"I've recently thought about ending my life."
"I tend to be more of a pessimist than an optimist."
"There is a handgun in my home."

It's the crescendo ending, though, that has some employees really upset. Questions 76 through 81 address the employee's religious practices. Employees are asked whether they "believe in a higher spiritual power," to what extent belief in a higher spiritual power influences their lives, how often they pray or meditate, how often they meet with others to share a spiritual experience and how well they think their current spiritual health or belief system is working.

Question No. 81 asks: "Would you like help or information on how to develop better spiritual health? Pick option (1) yes, or option (2) no."

"We wanted the option of saying not just 'No,' but 'Hell, no,' " one shaken employee said.

Unfortunately, that's not an option, employees say -- not if they want full health insurance. They must also submit to blood and urine tests (done after the merger in what some regarded as cattle-car fashion -- a group event in the hospital auditorium).

Employees found out about the questionnaire by way of an April 6 memo from Memorial Hermann system president Dan S. Wilford. A key, underlined sentence in the one-page memo read:

Your coverage will be limited to the catastrophic medical plan, with no other benefits coverage, if you do not return a completed form by the enrollment deadline.

Catastrophic medical plans are just what they sound like. They offer coverage only in the case of high-priced illness or dire damage to a human body. They provide no coverage for more routine medical matters such as pregnancy, a broken arm or the flu.

Unsurprisingly enough, all this has left some Hermann people fuming and not at all sure that last October's merger with Memorial was a hot idea. Many are filling out the forms under grumbling protest. A few aren't going to answer the questions, and are waiting to see what happens. Some consulted private attorneys, but no lawsuits have been filed. The kind of people who can afford paid lawyers are not among the rank and file who keep the records and clean the floors and cook the food and do the laundry at Hermann. These are people who aren't about to do anything to lose their jobs. In fact, none of the employees who talked to the Press for this article wanted their names used.

Out of the 81 questions, only four are marked "optional." You can decline to answer questions on your race, education level and family income, and whether you and your partner have had more than one sex partner in the last five years.

Despite being "optional," the question on sexual partners still infuriated several employees, who thought it had no place in the company questionnaire. Especially, they said, since files like these are very accessible.

As one employee put it, "Everyone knows everyone else's medical business here because we're all in the computers and we all have access to the same info." And if you're gay or have a variety of lovers or aren't religious enough, maybe everyone will know and maybe you won't have a job anymore.

Unless you lie, of course.

Dan S. Wilford, president of the not-for-profit Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, engineered this new approach to wellness and insurance coverage for Hermann. He comes from the Memorial side of the merger, where he was president of that system. The son of a Methodist minister, he studied at the University of Mississippi and played end on the 1961 Ole Miss team that went 91 and lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. As a hospital administrator in northern Mississippi, he moonlighted as an NFL lines official, flying around the country to pro games -- an activity he continued when he first came to Houston, quitting only when his knees gave out.

Wilford in conversation is likable, articulate, earnest and compelling. Getting a chance to have one of those earnest and compelling conversations with him is difficult; he seems to be in meetings all the time, working out details of the merger that's bringing together more than 11,000 employees and two disparate systems. He recognizes that his message isn't being received with open arms by the Hermann folks and seems genuinely puzzled by their reaction.

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