Eligibility rules altered for health plan
In a sign of a bleaker outlook for Screen Actors Guild members, the SAG health plan is tightening eligibility levels by 3% for next year — and will probably continue to do so in subsequent years.Reasons for the changes in earnings thresholds, posted this week on the health plan website, were not disclosed and reps for the plan didn’t respond to a request for comment. But the tightened requirements aren’t a surprise in light of two negative trends that the SAG plan disclosed a year ago — a 10% decline in employer contributions generated from employment-based earnings; and a 9% hike in healthcare costs. As of Jan. 1, the earnings requirement for participants in the top tier Plan I will be to have earned $30,150 in the previous four quarters to qualify, up from the current $29,250. Plan II participants will see their four-quarter earnings threshold rise to $14,800 next year from $14,350, or 76 days of employment, which is two more days than the current level. Thesps who are over 40 with 10 years of eligibility will see the earnings threshold rise to $10,700 from $10,400. The health plan — covering about 40,000 participants and operated jointly by reps of SAG and the industry — posted the changes without comment other than saying, “These minimum requirements may increase each year. The Trustees have set a target of 3% per year, however they will determine the actual size of the increase based on an annual review of the Health Plan’s financial condition.” Currently, employers pay a contribution equal to 15% (9.25% for health, 5.75% for pension) of an actor’s salary into the SAG plans. The amount of that contribution declined last year for two reasons — studios greenlit fewer feature films and nearly all new TV pilots signed with AFTRA last year — and those trends have continued this year. SAG actors saw a 2.5% decline in so-called “covered” earnings in 2008 to $2 billion, due largely to the impact of the writers strike. (The figure is derived from contributions employers make to the pension and health plans and doesn’t include many of the paychecks for top stars because of caps on those contributions). The increase in the threshold requirements in the SAG health plan comes in spite of the plan having hiked premiums at the start of this year. Plan I monthly premiums rose from $50 to $83 with Plan II rising from $65 to $98. The plan for the first time also began charging senior performers a premium of $25 a month. The plan also added a $250 per-year deductible for mental health and chemical dependency outpatient services; an increase in the prescription drug deductible to $150 a year from $100; a limit on sleep aids coverage to 21 days a month; and elimination of coverage on all prescription non-sedating antihistamines. The hikes in premiums and cuts in benefits were announced last September and became an issue in the campaigning for SAG’s national board, with the Membership First and Unite for Strength factions blaming each other. In 2003, skyrocketing costs forced the trustees to institute the first-ever premiums along with raising the eligibility floors and cutting benefits. In 2006, the trustees said the finances had stabilized enough to lower the eligibility for thesps over 40 from $15,000 to $10,000 and hold off on planned 5% hikes in eligibility. The split in primetime jurisdiction between SAG and AFTRA reduces the chances that rank-and-file members can earn enough to meet the earnings thresholds. As a result, the opposing Membership First and Unite for Strength factions have both advocated merging the unions — although Membership First wants the combined union to be for actors only with the AFTRA broadcasters and recording artists excluded from the merged organization.