Prove your kids are yours

The Tribune Company has come up with a new tactic to cut costs and annoy the hell out of its employees — again. It seems that everyone on the staff at the L.A. Times (and so I assume KTLA) has to prove that their spouses and children really are theirs, and thus eligible for medical benefits. Though wasteful and mildly insulting it sounds easy enough, but apparently it's not. They call it a "Mercer Audit" and its demands have some staffers in an uproar. Some email exchanges follow after the jump, starting with a memo from editorial hiring and development director Susan Denley trying to calm people down.


Many of you-not everyone but a whole bunch of folks-are going through a "Mercer Audit" to prove that dependents on your insurance policies are really, legally dependents.

A lot of people have questions about this, so I'll fill in a little background:

This idea came up about a year ago, when it came to Tribune's attention that some other major companies conduct audits and have found an apparently surprising number of ineligible dependents on insurance policies. This drives up costs.

So in the Spring, Tribune hired Mercer to conduct an audit of 10% of the employees who claim dependents. I don't know what they found, but subsequently they decided to audit the other 90% of employees who claim dependents. It is that audit that is taking place now.

If you don't claim any dependents you're not affected.

If you were audited in the Spring, as I was, you're not affected. (And if you were audited, you know it because you had to pull all kinds of documentation to prove that your dependents are legit.)

If you have dependents and were not audited in the Spring, then you're being audited NOW. You should have received a letter from Mercer by now. If you didn't, or think you might have thrown it out with the junk mail, or you've been away from home on assignment and not getting mail, please let me know.

You have until Oct. 5 to file proof. Don't wait till the last minute. It's a pain, but if you don't do it, your dependents will lose coverage. It's too important to procrastinate.

(Yikes, did that last sentence sound preachy!)

This was sent to the benefits office, according to my source, by a newsroom staffer:

I am writing to follow up on an email I sent you on Sept. 21 complaining about the Mercer dependent audit. As I'm sure you recall, I wrote to ask that you instruct Mercer to confirm receipt of the information proving that my alleged wife and reputed [age redacted] son do in fact exist and deserve to remain on the Tribune health insurance plan.

Upon return from work last evening, I received a letter from Mercer entitled "2nd Notice: Immediate Action Required." The notice again threatened that unless I sent in the requested documentation by Oct. 5, health coverage for my wife and son "will end." The letter was postmarked Sept. 20, which was 13 days after I sent by express mail the required forms, and 10 days after an employee of Mercer signed the return receipt.

Needless to say, I was quite disturbed and left a lengthy, unhappy email on the company's line. In a conversation this morning, a company vice president admitted that they received my paperwork and sent me a confirmation email that my documentation of dependents has been confirmed. This is good news for them because if I was going to have to send Mercer any more proof, I was ready to mail off the contents of my son's [joke redacted]

Though my case appears to have been resolved, I am passing along this tale to alert you that many other Tribune employees may also be jolted by similar Mercer letters. Therefore, I reiterate the request I made in my previous email: that you instruct Mercer to send written confirmation to every employee that their documentation has been received and that they have met the proof standard of this wasteful and demeaning "audit."

I am also encouraging, via the technological magic of the courtesy copy, that all Times employees who are being audited should demand written proof that their documents have been received and validated, since the administration of this "audit" to date has been less than confidence-inspiring, both in Mercer and in Tribune.

The painful irony in all this is that this energy in stopping Tribune from taking away my family's health coverage has distracted me from my actual job responsibility: [beat redacted] Given all the challenges that Tribune faces, one would think that the company would want us to focus on more important endeavors.

I still look forward to learning from you whether the Mercer audit has recouped costs greater than the fees Tribune is paying to Mercer. I'm pasting a copy of my original email below to refresh your recollection.

Tribune responded:

The company decided to conduct a full audit of dependent status based on the results of our initial sample audit. That audit revealed that there were hundreds of dependents being carried on Tribune's medical plans who were in fact not eligible for coverage. This translates into approximately $2,000 a year on average for each ineligible dependent carried on our plans. These medical costs are shared with our employees so it is an expense to both Tribune and to our employees. It is not only a financial concern but one of fairness as well. Nonetheless, removing these ineligible dependents from our plans more than recouped the cost of the audit itself.

Employees can contact Mercer to receive confirmation that they have received the necessary documentation. Be assured, no employee's dependents will be removed without being notified directly from Tribune and only if proper documentation is not provided.

Last word to the staffer who complained:

Thanks for your response. However, "hundreds of dependents" is not very descriptive: is that 201 or 999? And I would still like to know, upon completion of this larger audit, how many dependents were not eligible and whether those savings exceeded the audit's cost.

Dozens of people have had a similar experience to mine. One person at the Times got the second warning letter BEFORE receiving the form she was supposed to fill out.

Making honest people fear losing their health insurance -- which polls show is a major anxiety throughout the population -- is inexcusable. It is no "assurance" to be told that Tribune will make contact before yanking your spouse and kids off their insurance. You have a moral responsibility to proactively inform each employee when their dependents have been verified to the company's satisfaction so they don't have to keep worrying.

In addition, Tribune owes an apology to every employee who received one of these threatening letters after they had already provided the paperwork. It may not meet the legal definition of workplace harassment, but the bullying approach of this audit is an affront to everyone who works hard at the Times and the other Tribune properties.

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