I’ve been thinking about the reasons that AOL’s Tim Armstrong gave for his company’s plan to shift its 401(k) match to a year-end lump sum. The company needed to save money, he “explained,” due to costs from health reform, and two employees who had so-called “distressed babies” who needed expensive medical care.
My first reaction: What a frigging idiot. And I hope the parents of those “distressed babies” sue the pants off that guy — who made $12 million in 2012, mind you — for violating their privacy.
As I thought more about Armstrong’s bone-headed comments, I started to see them through a few different lenses.
First, as an employee. At my last job, I was lucky to work for an organization with an extremely generous 401(k) matching plan. I’ve worked at other places where the retirement plan was decidedly less of a perk, but even there, I was lucky not to have the rug pulled out from under me, and that’s what the AOL plan – now shelved, I’m glad to say — would have done to existing employees. Coming at it from the perspective of a potential employee, AOL’s plan seemed unfair, and shortsighted, and sure to result in large numbers of people leaving each year shortly after the company paid out the match.
Then, I thought about it as a parent. I count my lucky stars every single day that Teddy was born healthy and, a few colds aside, has remained so. The parents of those “distressed babies” can’t say the same. They’ve privately endured the anguish of their children’s health struggles – and now they’ve relived them again publicly, thanks to Armstrong’s utter lack of discretion. Gee, I wonder how long it took for other employees to figure out who he was talking about? Two minutes? Five? Huge kudos to the mom of one of the babies for writing about her family’s experience so eloquently, to Slate for publishing it, and to everyone who has shared her column through social media. Her defense of her daughter puts Armstrong to shame. (Guess he didn’t realize he was taking on a writer.)
And then, finally, I thought about Armstrong’s excuse as a patient. It’s fair to say that I’ve been a high-cost consumer of health care. Even before my cancer, there were the many tests to diagnose my endometriosis, and then the surgery to treat it. With the cancer, though, came the big bucks: Full-body scans. More surgery. Thyrogen shots, more than I care to remember, at more than $2,800 a pop. Radioactive iodine, twice, inpatient. And then there were the miscarriages, and the related tests, and the c-section when Teddy wouldn’t budge after 28 hours of labor.
With a list like that, I can understand how some – Tim Armstrong included – might see me as a financial drag of an employee. A few times, I did think about how much I might be costing my company(ies). I’d joke at the annual benefits meeting, where the HR director would review our health care costs, that I was the reason people’s co-pays were going from $15 to $20. You know what? I probably was. So, too, were the employees whose kids were on asthma medication, and those whose spouses were on expensive cholesterol drugs, and those sitting in the same room with me taking daily anti-depressants. Otherwise known as, we were all using the insurance that was available to us, though some, like me, used it more than others.
I have been incredibly grateful to have had great insurance that made it possible for me to receive world-class treatment without the fear of bankrupting my family. As I read Tim Armstrong’s blame of his employees for having the gall to have children who needed medical care, I grew even more thankful that no one I’ve worked with – not my bosses or their bosses, nor HR reps or co-workers – has ever made me feel guilty for using that great insurance.
If anything, they helped me make the most of it — to use its benefits fully so that I could recover as quickly as possible. I knew that they wanted me back in the office full-time because I was a hard-working, dedicated employee – but also because they were human, and they wanted me to be healthy.
They made me feel like I was a person first, an employee second, and a liability not at all. If only Tim Armstrong’s employees could say the same.