Come for the Coffee, Stay for the Health Insurance

This week I was fortunate enough to attend the Benefits Canada’s Benefits & Pension Summit. This was a wonderful opportunity to mingle with my peers in the benefits industry on both the corporate HR side and the supplier side. It was great to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, but the highlight for me was the closing key note address by Michael Gates Gill, author of How Starbucks Saved My Life.

I should admit up front that I am a regular Starbucks patron. I enjoy their service (and the occasional chocolate croissant from the new pastry collection). But even on my worst days, Starbucks has not even come close to saving my life.

The speaker, Michael, I mean Mike, shared with us his story of being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Might not have been much of a story for the average Canadian, however, Mike is not Canadian. Mike is a proud New Yorker who lost his job at age 53, about 10 years before the diagnosis. Working in an industry that prized youth over experience, he was unable to replace his income and his benefit plan with another employer and he had reached a point where he was broke. His story is quite moving, although he tells it quite matter-of-factly, without self-pity. Did I mention the surgery for the brain tumor was going to cost $100,000? How would you feel in that position? Self-pity doesn’t begin to describe it, does it?

So on the cold March day that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, 63 year-old Mike sought solace in a latte at Starbucks. And, quite by accident or fate or divine intervention, while he was there, he got a job – with benefits. (Check out his book for the whole story.)

Speaking with a roomful of benefit professionals, Mike proclaimed the immeasurable value of benefit plans. He shared with us how, as corporate executives, he and his cronies limited the benefits provided to the lower-paid employees they called their most important asset, while reveling in a Cadillac plan themselves. In hindsight, he admitted this was not the most enlightened period of his life. He paid tribute to Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, whose strong philosophies are the foundation on which the benefit plan is built.

Starbucks employees have access to a benefit plan that will cover the cost of life-saving brain surgery as well as more usual things like glasses. Employees share in the cost of the plan, but their position as Starbucks employees gives them access to coverage they would not have been able to acquire or afford as individuals. Sixty-three year-old Mike with a brain tumor would not have been able to purchase health coverage on the individual market.

While we are fortunate in Canada to have universal health care to cover the cost of surgery, right now there are benefits in the Canadian market that employers are not allowing access to that could change the lives of employees. The ancillary costs of cancer not covered by provincial healthcare add up quickly. These costs include parking at the hospital or transportation to the treatment centre, care for dependent children, a spouse’s or parent’s lost time from work for caregiving. Critical illness coverage can fill these gaps, yet many employers are not offering it to employees. Best Doctors, another product available only through employee benefit plans, is an independent third party medical opinion that really can be life-saving.

Is your benefit plan doing everything it can? Something to think about over coffee. If you want to talk about options, I’ll meet you at Starbucks.

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