Gary Sawatzky |Chief Operating Officer, ARTA

As ARTA reaches its sixtieth year, it’s worth reflecting on one of the greatest perks offered to members — the ARTA Benefit Plans.

In 1993, ARTA’s executives began investigating the possibility of providing a benefit plan to members, including health, hospital, and travel insurance. They discovered that if ARTA was able to provide an expression of interest signed by at least 1,500 ARTA members, Johnson Inc. would begin the process of creating an ARTA benefit plan.

With positive support from members, ARTA entered an agreement with an insurer (Maritime Life) to underwrite the benefit plan and for Johnson Inc. to administer the plan. It took effect on September 5, 1994. ARTA then created a Health and Wellness Benefits Committee to oversee the benefit plan and to report to the Board of Directors the ongoings of the plan.

In 2000 (when I started to be involved with the plan as an employee of Johnson Inc.), we built margins into the plan rates in order to develop a Rate Stabilization Reserve — a reserve from which money can be drawn to reduce shock rate increases. This allowed us to change the underwriting method used by the plan — meaning that while the plan was still fully insured (i.e., the insurance company held the risk), ARTA could retain excess surplus any years they were generated, further bolstering the reserves held by ARTA. This was implemented for health benefits but not the emergency travel coverage — it remained fully insured.

The growing surplus funds being held under the plan led to the formation of the ARTA Trust to oversee the surplus investments and to try to build the surplus reserves via wise investment opportunities, further protecting the long-term sustainability of the plan.

In 2008, the plan was expanded to include Alberta public service retirees, with an open enrolment for previous retirees, generating significant interest. The success of open enrolment eventually resulted in ARTA expanding its affiliate membership coverage even further — ARTA allowed public sector retirees and private sector groups to join ARTA, which allowed those members to participate in the benefit plan, too.

In 2012, ARTA changed its benefits consulting company, who recommended unbundling the third party administration and adjudication, and we moved to a new third party administrator — the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan. The change in partners was strategic as it allowed ARTA to better communicate with new school retirees, resulting in significant growth for ARTA. ARTA’s percentage membership grew by double digits during these years.

This culminated in 2021 when ARTA reached a critical juncture with its plan — it had grown so successfully in the previous decade that it no longer needed a third party administrator, and we moved administration of the benefit plan in-house. This resulted in reduced costs for members and more control over the plan.

Finally, earlier this year ARTA was able to accomplish something that had been years in the making — opening its own pharmacy, the first benefit plan-owned pharmacy in the country, ARTARx. All profits earned by ARTARx go toward the benefit plan, ensuring long term sustainability of the plan and allowing ARTA to continue to offer the very best in benefits.

Throughout this time, ARTA continued to expand its offerings to its members through the benefit plan — new plans were introduced that permitted members to customize their coverage; benefit coverage and plan maximums were increased in years that had good experience; and providers were selected strategically to ensure ARTA’s members’ needs were being looked after. We even expanded the plan offerings to include plans specifically for members under the age of 65 to account for the public seniors’ plans coverage at age 65 in most provinces.

Going forward, ARTA will continue to offer members the very best in benefits and to partner with strategic organizations that enhance the member experience further. The plan has come a very long way since its inception, and it will be exciting to see what else the future holds.