Coffee heat rising

Running around COBRA’s barn again

Just realized I didn’t write a post this morning and then, whilst frolicking with bureaucrats, didn’t get to it this afternoon, either.

Another fine exercise in jumping through hoops and tearing around the Maypole today.

Not having heard anything more from the COBRA administrators over the past 15 days, despite having been told that a notice and a statement would be sent out, I called again to inquire.

Today’s bureaucrat harked back to the original claim that I needed to have sent them money a month BEFORE I was laid off my job. I explained that Arizona State University’s Human Resources people said that I was not supposed to send money while I was still employed there. She said well, then I wasn’t covered.

So I’ve now spent the last month without any health coverage at all, if you believe this one’s version.

She wants me to present myself in person on Monday—when I’ll be teaching until 2:00 in the afternoon about 25 miles from their office—with a check for $334 in hand. This, she says, will cover me through February.

Of course, that doesn’t make any sense, because the one who told me I’d been approved for the ARRAS discount said my premiums would be $185. Two times $185 is $370. So… who knows what this is about.

Entertaining, isn’t it?

First ASU’s HR people told me I would be not qualified for the ARRAS discount because my last day of work was December 31. Then the Arizona Department of Administration, which administers COBRA, told me I would be qualified for the ARRAS discount because my last day of work was December 31. I sent an application and was told I was approved.

Next, ADOA said I should send a chunk of money to the state no later than the first week in December. Then ASU’s HR department told me this demand was incomprehensible, that I most certainly did not need to send money for COBRA while I was still employed by ASU, and that COBRA would send me a statement after I was terminated, saying how much and when to pay.

In mid-January, ADOA informed me that I was not terminated and as far as they could tell I was still employed by ASU. Then ASU told me I most certainly was terminated and ADOA did not know what they were talking about. Then ADOA told me I was not terminated and was still a state employee.

After I spoke with my ex-husband’s former law partner, who is now Arizona State University’s general counsel, I was told the mess was cleaned up. At that point, I was informed that I had actually been canned not on December 31 but on January 10, but nevertheless because the Obama Administration had extended the ARRAS discount into February, I still would be able to get  coverage I could sort of pay for.

On January 14, I spoke to one Connie at ADOA, who said I did not have to send a check but that I would receive a letter telling me of my eligibility and letting me know where and when to send a premium payment. And by the way, no, I did not need to make a COBRA payment a month before my job ended. That was 15 days ago. No such communication has appeared.

Now I am told I need to pony up $334.04, which is supposed to cover me “through February.” Three hundred and thirty-four dollars is slightly more than twice the earned income I have received this month.

So, this afternoon I called the Feds.

There I learned that while COBRA is indeed a federal law, the federal government’s regulatory oversight is limited to private employers. If you work for a state university or government office, you’re on your own! I asked the woman who shared this gem with me if she thought I should call a lawyer. She said not yet…it’ll be another week or so before they’re actually in violation of the law. She recommended going back to HR (hah! words from a lady who’s never had to deal with ASU’s HR department!) and nagging some more.

I am nagged out. On Monday I will trudge down to ADOA in person, hand over $334, and demand a receipt that states exactly what the money is for, and not only that, ask that they produce a policy or a contract describing what I get and when. After that, I give up. If I get in a car wreck or have a heart attack before Medicare kicks in, I guess I’ll just have to drain my savings to pay the bills and then declare bankruptcy.

Ain’t workin’ for the State of Arizona grand?

Nope… Money unhappens

That six-month free ride for COBRA sounded too good to be true, and, as the saying predicts, it wasn’t. True, I mean. Called the Department of Administration again today to confirm what I thought I’d heard and learned that the “six” syllable actually occurred in the word sixty, as in sixty days.

You have sixty days after canning to enroll in COBRA and start paying up.

LOL! My scheme would’ve worked if I’d been born on March 7 instead of May 7. But in the cold cruel light of reality, it fell way short of its goal.

Oh well. At least I still have the $571 GDU dumped in my account today. Now all I have to do is persuade the federal government that it’s 2009 earnings (which it is), so that I don’t get nicked on the Social Security earnings limit. Even five hundred bucks will make a difference.

Medicare is going to cost a lot of money. Relatively. Yes, I do understand that $300 a month is a microscopic droplet in the bucket compared to what some people are paying for health insurance. But nevertheless, it’s more than eight times what I’ve been paying for an excellent plan, at a time when I’ll be earning a third of what I grossed on the job. With the ARRAS discount in force, Medicare will actually cost more than COBRA!

The base cost of Medicare Part B will be $110 a month. Parts A and B cover your basic needs, but leave your pants down around your knees: it’s an 80-20 coverage with rather limited hospitalization and no prescription meds. As we all know, one serious car accident, one heart attack, one stroke and 20 percent of the resulting medical bills will ruin you financially.

To take up the slack, you have to buy a “Medigap” policy from a private insurer. These policies, which come in a dozen flavors, are standardized, so that all policies issued in any one of the 12 available plans are the same. Only three—Plans C, F, and J—seem to cover all the contingencies well. Insurers charge whatever they feel like charging, and so in Arizona premiums for Medigap policies range from around $80 a month to over $300, depending on your gender and age. One outfit charges $417 to $560 for plan J—this is for supplemental insurance!

On the low end, a 65-year-old Arizona woman will pay between $107 and $163 to get into one of those three plans. Well, at least she did last year; I can’t get my hands on the 2010 rates, but I’m sure they’re higher.

Then you have to buy a prescription drug plan—and you have to get it whether or not you take any meds. If you don’t buy in as soon as you’re eligible, you’re penalized with a whopping fine when you go to sign up later. These plans run around $25 or $30 a month, and they don’t cover all drugs nor do they cover all costs of drugs; you still get to pony up a hefty copay for most prescriptions.

So: $110 for Plan B + $110 or so for Medigap + $25 for drugs and you’re at $245…at 2009 rates. Let’s add, say, 10% for inflation, and that brings us to about $270, for the cheapest plans on the market. By way of comparison, my cost for COBRA will be $185 a month; my cost for an employer-based EPO that let me go to the Mayo Clinic was $36 a month.

I guess you can get cheaper coverage by going with an HMO, which is what Medicare Advantage is. But having watched my mother die pretty hideously in the negligent hands of HMO doctors, I’m not going that way (it’s not in an HMO’s financial interest to treat you when you have a catastrophic illness; au contraire, what works for them is to deny you’re sick until it’s too late to do a thing for you, and then to withhold palliative care).

Interestingly, AARP’s much vaunted senior-friendly plan is far from the cheapest. They charge $187 for Plan C, $190 for Plan F, and $217 for Plan J. By comparison, the lowest rate I could find for Plans C and F was $107; four companies charge around $115 to $120, and quite a few are in the $150 range.

Well, I’ll be happy if I can keep the total cobbled-together cost of this pushmi-pullyu lash-up under $300. But I figure three C-notes a month is what I’d better budget for Medicare over the next two or three years…until it goes up.

Did money just happen?

Whoa! I think I just stumbled onto something amazing. Remember how SDXB told us “money happens”? Well…the stuff appears to be materializing as we scribble.

Well, not so much!
See the update here.

Yesterday I was talking with the people at the state Department of Administration about COBRA, which is administered through their agency.

The Great Desert University did another of its little numbers on me. Despite handing me a contract that says my last day of work was December 31, they “termed” me (the bureaucrat’s salubrious term for “terminated”) in their system on January 10. Because the eligibility for the COBRA discount ended on December 31, this would have rendered me unable to pay for health insurance, except that (thank God!) the Obama Administration extended the stimulus discount for those who are canned into February.

In the course of conversation, the ADOA rep remarked that during the first six months of COBRA, you’re covered whether or not you’re paying every month. For me, the payment under the ARRAS discount would amount to about $200.

I said, “So, if I haven’t paid for the first couple of months and then I’m in a car wreck and break every bone in my body and they cart me off to St. Joe’s emergency room, I can pony up the back payments and be covered?”

“That’s right.”

Hm. Come to think of it, I’ve heard that before.

Now, my Medicare card came in the mail yesterday afternoon. On the first of May—three and a half months from today—I will automatically go on Medicare. At that time I’ll want to sign up for a Medigap policy.

According the the reams of paperwork I have here, Medigap insurers cannot zap you for whatever pre-existing condition they can dream up if you have “no gap in coverage” with your prior insurance.

“No gap in coverage.” That is exactly the ADOA rep’s wording. She said, “Don’t worry. You have no gap in coverage between your state insurance and COBRA,” even if you’re not paying the first few premiums.

So. Because Medicare starts less than six months from the start of my COBRA coverage, in theory if I never paid a penny in COBRA premiums, I still would be covered right up until the time the government program takes over, and, because I would have “no gap in coverage,” the private sharks who run the Medigap insurance programs would be unable to screw me because 20 years ago I broke a wrist when I fell on the rocks in the bottom of Aravaipa Canyon while hauling a 30-pound backpack.* And there would be nothing they could do to claim the stress attacks engendered by working for Our Beloved Employer are some sort of excuse for why they shouldn’t cover me.

This sounds too good to be true. But it gets better!

As dawn cracked, I got on the phone to Medicare and tried to formulate this question for the rep who answered: Is it true that if I don’t pay for COBRA I would still be “covered” technically so that I could get Medigap without being zinged for pre-existing conditions.

Irrelevant, says she. Here’s the deal: When you turn 65, you have six months of open enrollment, during which time you can select a Medigap provider who has to take you without regard to pre-existing conditions.

You catch my drift, right?

If I remain “covered” by COBRA for six months whether or not I’m paying the premiums and I attain Medicare in 3 1/2 months, then effectively what I have here is free health insurance for the next several months. There’s no reason for me to pony up the $200/month COBRA premium.

Eight hundred dollars would just about cover the increase in power and water bills over the summer—my combined bills go up by about $200 a month during June, July, August, and September.

With enough in the bank to pay the summertime utility bills, my 2010 budgeting problems disappear into the overheated desert air.

My health is excellent. Except for my neurosis about Arizona State University, I have no health problems at all. I often go six months to a year without seeing a doctor. So it makes good sense to take a chance—especially since no real risk is involved—and quietly not pay the COBRA premiums unless something drastic happens.

Meanwhile, because in direct contradiction to my contract the state carried me on its payroll until January 10, they deposited another $517 into my checking account! This happened because, contrary to what HR told me, in the two December 31 paychecks PeopleSoft did not pay off everything ASU owed me: the five hundred bucks represents pay for the two days in December that I worked past the final 2009 lagging pay period.

I think I’ll be able to argue that this is 2009 pay, so that Social Security will not ding me for it—although from the blank looks I’ve gotten from ASU functionaries about this matter, it’s pretty clear that no help in proving it will be forthcoming from those quarters. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Let’s see here… $800 + $517…that’s $1,317 of money happening!

*No joke! Blue Cross/Blue Shield once actually told me it would not cover me for any broken bones or back problems because they believed the hairline wrist fracture and a later X-ray of a foot showing mild osteopenia meant I had osteoporosis (even though I decidedly did not and still do not).

Trying to escape from flypaper

Getting quit of Arizona State University and the State of Arizona is like trying to pull yourself free of a giant sheet of heavy-duty, extra-sticky flypaper. Below, notes on this morning’s exchanges with a Fidelity 403(b) rep, a Department of Administration rep, and (god help me) another ASU Human Resources rep:

Called Fidelity to find out where the $500 payment is. Reached L— S—.

She said there are two funds, one with $159,000 and a smaller one. She asked which one I wanted to withdraw from. I said I had no idea, having been through several reps, all of whom said they would make this happen.

She said the smaller one is available for any drawdown from me. The larger one requires paperwork proving that I no longer work for the state university system and approval.

She said they did receive the 8-page form from ASU but it is in process at Fidelity. She will e-mail the person in that department and call me back to report what’s going on.

Meanwhile, I haven’t received a bill from COBRA. Called ADOA. Reached a woman who didn’t identify herself. She said

a) I was supposed to have sent a check to HITS (how appropriate!) and I have not. I looked in my notes and discovered I was supposed to have sent a $199.14 check and, in my endless confusion over this f***ing nightmare, failed to do so. But this would not matter, because…

b) ASU has not entered me in the HRIS system, and so as far as ADOA is concerned, I am still employed by ASU and still covered.

LS said I need to call HR again and do battle with them. I have to tell them to enter me in HRIS and then find out from them what date they show me terminated. Then I have to call ADOA back and tell them what the date is. Then they will figure out what to do about COBRA.

I called C— D— at HR. She said I am entered in HRIS as terminated. I said ADOA said I was not entered.

She was mystified about the COBRA prepayment due in December. I said that was what ADOA told me, and that I had failed to make the payment because I was overwhelmed by the paperwork and hoop-jumping, which has now accrued a two-inch thick binder of paperwork and notes. She said there is no such payment; that she couldn’t speak for ADOA but she knows the system, and they have to send me a bill for any amounts owed. I said what I told her was what they  told me. Twice.

CD said the termination went into the system on January 6, and it usually takes about 24 hours for it to register. She also said that because I wasn’t canned until the 31st, several days in to the first January pay period, I would have been covered by ASU’s regular plan until the 10th. I pointed out that today is January 12, and so presumably I now have no insurance coverage.

She said well, do I have any health issues? I said I need to go to the dentist. She asked if I have an appointment today.

I said, “Look. I have to get in my car and drive from one end of Hell to the other today. If I get in an accident and end up in the hospital without coverage, I will be bankrupted!”

She said COBRA has a six-month period in which you can enroll, so if I get hurt or sick in that period I can retroactively enroll.

She offered to call ADOA and tell them I was “termed” in their system six days ago and to find out what the story is with the COBRA. I said I will be running around the city all day—I’m now over an hour late in getting started and haven’t even had breakfast!—so she said she would find out what she can and leave word on my voicemail.

Will this horror show never stop????

Update: COBRA, RASL

So yesterday I reported on the flap that arose over the COBRA discount, in which one of GDU’s sterling HR representatives told me that staying on the payroll until December 31 would make me ineligible for the discount on COBRA mandated under ARRAS, the federal stimulus plan. This would mean my health insurance premiums would jump from $26 to over six hundred bucks a month. Even with the discount, the cost will rise to $186, but since I’ll be paying more than that for Medicare, it almost looks affordable.

Not, of course, with almost zero income, but I’ll just have to forego food and other necessities, since at my age I can’t risk going without health insurance.

Well, the story gets better.

I managed to find an e-mail address for an actual human being at the downtown state employee benefits office, taking me outside GDU’s purview. Off went a query:

If my employment with the Great Desert University ends on December 31, will I be eligible for the discounted COBRA?

Here is the reason that I am asking this question:

The federal rule on COBRA premium assistance, posted at www.irs.gov/pup/irs-drop/n-09-27.pdf, says a person is eligible…

(1) who is a qualified beneficiary as the result of an involuntary termination during the period from September 1, 2008, through December 31, 2009, (2) who is eligible for COBRA continuation coverage at any time during that period, and (3) who elects the coverage.

However, at GDU’s “frequently asked questions about COBRA premium assistance” page, this wording appears:

Who is eligible for premium assistance?

A person is eligible for premium assistance if and only if:

He/she is eligible for COBRA coverage between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009

AND

The qualifying event that makes him/her eligible for COBRA coverage is a covered employee’s employment being involuntarily terminated between September 1 2008 and December 31, 2009.

The HR rep with whom I spoke yesterday told me that the first bulleted  point, saying you must be “eligible for COBRA coverage between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009” means that if I am on the payroll on December 31, that will disqualify me from eligibility for the COBRA premium assistance BECAUSE my health care plan will remain in effect on that day, and so, because I will still be covered by my plan on December 31, I will not be “eligible” for COBRA until the next day, January 1, and therefore will miss the deadline. She believes that as long as your plan is in force, by definition you’re not eligible for COBRA—you have to have been thrown off your plan to be eligible. That is, she is saying that as long as your health care plan still covers you, you are not eligible for COBRA and therefore if you are still on the payroll on December 31, you are not eligible for the COBRA discount.

Is that true?

The way I read the federal rule published on the IRS site, it looks like “eligible for COBRA continuation coverage” means only that you are enrolled in an employer’s health plan and that you are involuntarily terminated between 9/1/08 and 12/31/09. Is simply being covered by your health care plan on the day you are involuntarily terminated enough to disqualify you from the discount, if your termination date is December 31?

Thus I need answers to two questions:

1. Is it true that if I am terminated involuntarily on December 31, 2009, I will not be eligible for the COBRA premium assistance? and

2. If it is true that termination on December 31 will make me ineligible for the COBRA discount, will a termination date of December 30 leave me eligible for the premium assistance?

Thank you for any clarification you can offer. I would like confirmation of the answer in writing, since no one at GDU seems to be certain of these policies.

Shortly, along came this startlingly literate response:

Hello,

Anybody terminated involuntarily between 9/30/08 and 12/31/09 are  all included in the Stimulas.

Thank you,

[the correspondent’s name & position]

{Sigh} I don’t know whether to take the word of a person who thinks that “anybody…are” and who can’t spell or punctuate stimulus. But at least now I have something in writing to support my interpretation of the law.

Ah, but it didn’t end there. Yesterday, the story got even better!

To be eligible for the state’s payout for accumulated sick leave (RASL), you have to be officially considered “retired.” Since I’ve worked at GDU since the early Pleistocene, this benefit amounts to about $20,000 for me, to be paid out in three annual installments.

The way I understand it, this means you make an official statement that you are retiring (and you have to do this within two weeks of your termination day) and you start drawing down from the state retirement system or from your 403(b), whichever you’re in.

As usual making an exception of myself, I want to roll over the $130,000 or so that has accumulated in this plan into my large IRA, which is professionally managed. I’d like to do this a) for the sake of simplicity (fewer statements to handle, fewer bureaucrats to deal with) and b) so that all my money is managed by the same financial management firm.

In connection with this strategy, I’ve been told that to be considered a GDU retiree, you have to leave a small amount in your 403(b) fund. Although you can roll over most of the money, there’s some minimum amount you have to leave in the state’s custody. What that minimum is remains a mystery.

So while I was at the HR office receiving incorrect information about the timing of the ARRAS eligibility, I asked the same font of wisdom if she could tell me what is the minimum that has to stay in the 403(b) to maintain one’s status as a “retiree.”

Well, of course she hadn’t the faintest. She’d never heard of such a thing.

She advised me to call the RASL director at the General Accounting Office to ask about this. I’ve been in touch with this woman before, and in the past she’s been very helpful—she was the one who advised me that the story La Maya and I each heard from HR office on two separate GDU campuses, to the effect that if you’re laid off you’re not eligible for RASL, was wrong.

By the time I reached her the following day, I’d about figured out that everything the HR rep had said about COBRA was just so much B.S., and so I’ll admit there probably was an edge in my voice.

When I asked her what was this “minimum amount” I’d been told had to stay in my 403(b) account, she completely went off on me.

She said that if I rolled my money out of my 403(b) into my own IRA, that would “obviously” mean I was not retired and therefore I could not have the $20,000 the state owes me for back sick leave pay.

I asked her to please define what is meant by “retire,” since I didn’t understand how rolling money out of a 403(b) into another tax-deferred plan would cause you to not be retired. She could not or would not respond to that question, but instead informed me flatly that if I rolled anything out of my 403(b), she would send me a letter rejecting my application for RASL. She started yelling at me (!) that “you can’t have everything you want.” I was so nonplussed it didn’t occur to me to say I’m not asking for everything; all I’m asking for is what I’ve earned over the past 15 years of working 14-hour days, 7 days a week with no overtime.

She then demanded that I call Fidelity and TIAA-CREF, where my 403(b) funds reside, with any further questions. She said they had “hundreds” of representatives who have had experience with this issue and could confirm what she said.

It took an hour and a half to get through the punch-a-button mazes to reach humans at those two worthy organizations. TIAA-CREF has disconnected the line that used to reach a person, so that now all of its published telephone numbers take you to a barricade between its employees and the Great Unwashed. Finally I got a call from a guy I reached through an e-mail form on their website.

At Fidelity, the CSR and his manager had never heard of any such rule. They both said they couldn’t imagine how rolling your money from one tax-deferred fund into another tax-deferred fund would magically make you “not retired.” The manager suggested that the way to get around this crazy woman would be simply to make a small drawdown, as though I were going to take out payments to live on, until such time as she approved the RASL and the first payment hit my account. Then, he suggested, just go ahead and do the rollover. Once she’d approved the RASL, there would be nothing she could do.

He also suggested simply rolling over the first distribution into my IRA. He said there’s no rule prohibiting you from making a roll-over, and although Fidelity has to confirm with GDU that the person requesting a distribution actually is “retired,” there’s no way the GAO woman was going to know where the distribution goes.

At TIAA-CREF, the CSR was amazed and said he also had never heard of any such thing. He said, however, that when the request for confirmation of retirement status goes through to GDU, the form used to make that request does say where the distribution is going. So, he concluded, this woman would be able to see whether I was having the money put into my checking account or whether it was being rolled into another tax-deferred instrument. He recommended taking a minimum distribution, paying the taxes on it, and depositing the remainder into my Roth IRA.

This will mean I can’t consolidate my money from three tax-deferred instruments to one for at least three months after I leave GDU. It takes that long after the demented woman at GAO approves your status as a retiree and gives the go-ahead for the RASL payment for the first of the three annual installments to be disbursed. Since I probably am going to have to make drawdowns from savings to survive, this is going to add to the hassle factor immeasurably.

What a flicking nightmare.

Another fun day at Human Resources

It’s probably my mistake. Most things are. Whatever, when I showed up yesterday morning at Human Resources for the required meeting for exiting retirees, I was told that the meeting wasn’t yesterday; it was Wednesday.

Now, I would swear the woman who made the appointment for me was on the phone when I had the calendar in hand, and that I said, as I always do, “Let me confirm that…” But maybe not. Maybe I wrote it down on Thursday and just imagined I entered it on Wednesday.

This created a double inconvenience: The pointless 44-mile round-trip trudge out there (where I have nothing to do other than pack up some more of my junk and haul it out to the car), and then, because they sent a packet of information through the campus mail, another pointless round trip in the next day or two to pick that up.

Swallowing my fury, I remarked to the woman at the reception desk that I had some questions that I haven’t been able to get answered. In the conversation that ensued, it developed that she was the very person who had made this pointless appointment for me—and, we may add, so far the only one who seems to have made some sense over the telephone. She was sitting at the front desk because, thanks to the layoffs, they’re so short-handed they don’t have enough staff to run the office properly. At any rate, she offered to answer said questions.

You understand: in dealing with HR what you get is a passel of information that you already know. Whatever they tell you is a) boilerplate and b) already on their website. But when you have a real question, one that isn’t answered on their website, they don’t know the answer. Consequently, they either tell you they don’t know and they don’t really know where you can find out, or they give you an answer that’s wrong.

For example, the last time I was out there (and I do mean out: HR’s offices are way to the south of the huge campus. It’s too far away to walk, and the parking lot is permit-only, so that employees have to pay to park there or take a chance on getting a whopping ticket)…the last time I was out there, I was told that the proposed December 31 canning day would get me in under the wire for the discounted COBRA.

Without the discount on COBRA, my health insurance premium will jump from $26 a month to something over $600. With it, the premium will be somewhat less than Medicare, around $185. Not really affordable, but at least attainable, more or less.

Yesterday the HR lady read the rules for the discounted COBRA closely (isn’t that a quaint idea?) and concluded that what I’d been told was wrong. My benefits actually have to have stopped before the 31st. So, she proposed, I need to ask the Dean’s office to can me significantly sooner. She suggested the 11th—arbitrarily, because some other disgruntled retiree had chosen that day at yesterday’s meeting.

I informed her that Social Security will not deliver a benefit check before the middle of February, even though it “starts” (snark!!) in January, and that they refused to “start” it in December so that I can get some money in my bank account in January, because I’m earning a salary in December that would trigger the 50 percent penalty for working while drawing SS. I pointed out that I will have a difficult enough time living for a month and a half with no income, and that there’s no way I can manage that for something like two months.

Then she decided I probably could get away with it by having them can me on the 27th, the date of the last paycheck of the month. But, she said, I’ll have to get the Dean’s office a) to do that (meaning I have to get that bureaucracy off the dime) and b) I have to get those people to state that I’m being terminated involuntarily (even though in fact what’s happening is they’ve arranged to have my contract stop then, and it’s entirely possible the government will argue that not renewing a contract is different from firing a regular worker).

Then I asked how I get my money out of the 403(b) plans to roll it into my IRA. She didn’t know. She said I had to call Fidelity and TIAA-Cref, and she did not know how to reach a human being at either outfit.

So I asked what is the minimum amount I’m required to leave in the plan in order to be regarded as “retired” over the next three years so that I can get my accrued sick leave payments, which are doled out over a three-year period. She didn’t know. She said I needed to call the state’s general accounting office.

I asked if benefits are taken out of our vacation pay, and if so, did that mean my health care insurance would be extended over the month or so of time for which GDU owes me. She said she believed that the health insurance stopped on the termination day, but she wasn’t sure. She called a payroll clerk up to the front, to discuss this question.

That woman said that the only thing that was taken out of back vacation pay was state and federal taxes, but that the federal tax bite would be 25 percent, and that your benefits stop on the day you are terminated. I asked why the tax rate was so high. She said that was just the rules. Then she said the state tax deduction would be over 30 percent, because that’s what I put on my A-4 form. (I did? Well, that explains why I keep getting such large state tax refunds). I said that would mean they would be grabbing over half my pay!

She said no, by “30 percent” she meant the state takes 30 percent of the federal tax. Then she said it was possible to elect a slightly smaller bite. I said I would like to do that. So she produced a new A-4, which is the same as a W-4 only for the state of Arizona. The lowest amount I could select was 21.1 percent.

By the time I walked out of there, steam was shooting out of my ears.

These developments—assuming they’re true—represent substantial more hassle, substantial more uncertainty, and four fewer days of pay: $960 less than I thought I would get!!!!!

The bright spot is that I’ll net a little more in vacation pay than the $3186 I expected: $3670. Not much—$486 less than the $960 I’ll lose by moving my termination day forward—but better than yet another hit on the head.

Moving on, I tried to contact the college’s business office manager, cc-ing my dean, and was told that she’s out until next Monday. So now all this complicated mess has to hang fire until then, and then hang fire still longer until she gets around to answering me. By then I will have forgotten some of the details and also will be engaged in dealing with other messes.

Today, whenever it gets to be business hours, I’ve got to track down the woman I found at GAO and find out just how little cash I’m allowed to leave in the 403(b) without losing my RASL payment.

Then, somewhere, somehow (I have no idea where or how) I’ve got to find someone who understands enough about COBRA to confirm or deconfirm whether I really have to sacrifice $960 of pay in order to keep my health insurance premiums in a range that I can even remotely afford to pay.

What I don’t understand is that, assuming the HR lady is right in thinking I have to be off the payroll before December 31 because my benefits would extend to that day, why can’t I be canned on December 30, thereby losing only $240 worth of pay? The rule says “eligible for COBRA” and the last day on which you may have been canned is the 31st.

She interprets “eligible for COBRA” as meaning not only that you were canned involuntarily but that your benefits have stopped. In her view, because my benefits would still be in force on the 31st, and because GDU will have to not pay me for the extra four days after the December 27 payday until the first payday in January 2010, those two things together will make me ineligible for the discount. I don’t think so: I think the rule says you may have been canned as late as the 31st. If she’s right that hanging onto my job until the 31st makes me ineligible for the discount but letting them can me on the 27th makes me eligible, then by that reasoning (if “reasoning” it can be called), I should still be eligible on the 30th. IMHO, I should be eligible on the 31st, but I’m willing to forego $240 (less tax, less benefits, less every other gouge GDU can think of) to keep my insurance premiums “down” to a mere $186 a month.

So far, I’ve been unable to find anyone, anywhere who can explain this rule. Most of the HR people barely know it exists at all, and they certainly don’t understand its fine points.

Jayzus Aitch Keerist on a crutch! Is it any wonder I’m grinding my teeth until they break?