Battling cancer—with help from UCAR
High Altitude Observatory scientist Phil Judge used to pay a lot more attention to solar physics than to his benefits at UCAR. Then came the shattering news in February that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood that had severely injured his spine and was continuing to spread. After months of treatment—including emergency spinal surgery, a stem cell transplant, and, now, radiation—the 43-year-old father of two is turning his attention back to solar physics and working part time at his Niwot home.
But he’s learned a lot about UCAR health and disability policies along the way. For those of us who worry about the impact of a major catastrophic illness or injury, Phil recently offered to share some insights with Staff Notes Monthly, and he consented to share details of his medical condition.
Phil’s been highly impressed at the extent to which UCAR’s policies have helped him financially. He has insurance through the CIGNA HMO, and it has covered all his medical needs, including the stem cell transplant. Even though his medical bills have mounted to about $250,000, “we’ve had no trouble with CIGNA and no stress with health insurance issues,” he says.
Despite being largely out of work since the winter, Phil has also suffered virtually no loss in pay. After using 2 weeks of sick time, he drew what’s called salary continuation pay for 11 weeks, which covered his entire salary. (Phil’s on the traditional benefits plan. A staffer on the personal time off (PTO) plan has equivalent benefits, but would use two weeks of PTO instead of sick time before drawing salary continuation pay.) Since then, he has been on long-term disability, which covers 60% of his salary, retirement contributions, and health insurance premiums. The policy also permits Phil to put in enough hours at home to earn the remainder of his salary. Freed of his administrative responsibilities, he has even finished five papers during his convalescence.
In addition to administering benefits, Human Resources helps staffers wade through an often confusing insurance system. HR benefits administrator Cyd Perrone has spent many hours with Phil’s wife, Terri Resley, who is taking the lead on applying for benefits while Phil is sick. “Cyd Perrone’s been fantastic,” Terri says. “She’s always had time for me.”
Phil’s been deeply moved by the outpouring of support from HAO staff. At least two HAO staffers traveled to Denver to donate platelets for Phil’s transplant; others cooked meals for his family during a two-month period. HAO director Michael Knöelker has reassured Phil that he doesn’t have to worry about his job and should focus instead on recovering.
Phil says the support has meant a lot to him as he battles the illness. “People have been unbelievably generous through this time,” he says. “It’s made a huge difference.”
What benefits don’t cover
Even though he’s insured, Phil has paid a couple of thousand dollars for his treatment, mostly in the form of co-payments for doctor’s visits and drugs. That’s a significant expense, especially since Terri has taken months off from her own job as a nurse’s assistant at Boulder Community Hospital to help care for Phil.
Another potential financial concern is that UCAR’s disability plan, like most disability policies, is not intended as a complete replacement for lost wages. Phil’s fortunate in that he can work enough hours at home to supplement the disability payments. Staffers who have to be on site or who are more severely disabled may not be able to work the additional hours.
Finally, UCAR will hold open a position for the disabled person for one year, unless budget cutbacks or other circumstances result in the position being eliminated. That’s more generous than many other organizations. Still, a staffer who needs more than a year to recover may not be able to retain his or her job. Phil fills a specialized niche in the world of solar physics, and he’s not concerned about being replaced as long as he can continue to do some research.
At least from Phil’s perspective, UCAR’s policies are remarkably generous. He says his friends in the private sector, where employees may earn higher short-term pay but have a weaker safety net, are struck by his benefits. “In comparison with the general population,” Phil says, “I feel like we’re in a nice, warm, cozy nest.”
In a recent interview at his house, Phil relaxed, played with the family dog, and recalled with Terri the trauma of the last few months. While thin and looking a bit weary, he laughed frequently and expressed an eagerness to return to hisFoothills 2 office.
Thanks to modern medicine, Phil can expect to resume a largely normal life, including working full time and enjoying limited physical activities such as bicycling and cross-country skiing. His long-term prognosis is uncertain because multiple myeloma is incurable. However, Phil’s stem cell transplant doctor said he may remain relatively healthy for 10 to 20 years—by which time new treatments could be available for his disease.
“I fully expect to be around five years at least, and getting to 63 is not out of the question,” Phil says. “God knows what’s in the future for anyone. I’m going to celebrate every birthday, and especially the big ones.”
The experience has left Phil with such a deep appreciation for UCAR that he wrote a letter in September to UCAR president Rick Anthes lauding the organization. “I want you to know that I think UCAR may be second to none in the way it handles employees who, through no fault of their own, become seriously ill or disabled,” he wrote. “It has been very reassuring to know that one’s job is secure anda good fraction of one’s income is covered in times of disability.” •David Hosansky