It’s easy to overlook the essential nature of employee benefits, even though they impact some of the most important moments in people’s lives. Medical coverage lessens the financial impact of disease, accidents, and having children. Family leave is for events that are both exquisitely joyful and filled with sorrow. Pensions and 401(k)s pay out at retirement. Life insurance pays out at a death. Educational benefits advance careers. Paid time off can involve epic discoveries in travel—or at the very least, provide a time for important physical, mental, and perhaps spiritual recharging.
Judy Cato, director of benefits administration at the Texas A&M University System, understands this well. Not only does she have more than thirty years of experience in the benefits industry but she’s also gained a personal appreciation for benefits after major events in her own life. Over the last three decades, she’s seen the evolution of what employees need, some of the escalating costs associated with those needs, and most recently, what benefits have meant in the time of a global pandemic.
Cato has experienced changes of her own during the pandemic: in the first quarter of 2021, she left a position at Arizona State University and moved from Phoenix to College Station, Texas, about one hundred miles from Houston, to work at the Texas A&M System.
She sees good benefits packages as a win-win for employers and employees alike. “The employer needs to provide what they can to attract talent,” she says. “And employees need the benefits. They ask about it, particularly as the package affects their families.”
Cato has had the luxury—and heavy responsibility—of working for several large organizations prior to her university employers in Texas and Arizona. They include secondary school systems (Mesa, Arizona), hospital systems (Rady Children’s in San Diego and Phoenix Children’s), private industry organizations (Bechtel Corporation, Bank of America, and Amkor Technology), and a quasi-governmental health benefits administrator (TriWest Healthcare Alliance). These are organizations with sophisticated benefits offerings that are essential in the competitive talent marketplace.
In the past, Cato has often worked at places where she’d have direct, face-to-face interaction with employees and could see how their benefits worked for them on an individual level.
At the Texas A&M System, on the other hand, she oversees benefits administration to more than thirty thousand employees—a third of them retirees—in twenty-two separate entities under the system’s umbrella. She doesn’t meet personally with most of those employees, particularly under pandemic safety conditions, but she hears from them through the human resources offices at each of the system entities.
“People thank us for the programs we provide,” she says. “It means a lot to me to hear a program has changed a life.”
Perhaps Cato connects with that kind of feedback because of a life-changing experience of her own. In 2005, while traveling for work, she had an unexpected medical emergency that got very serious very fast. She became comatose, flatlined, and was resuscitated, she says. Her parents were contacted and told that her chances of survival were slim.
“The employer needs to provide what they can to attract talent. And employees need those benefits.”
She survived and ultimately thrived, but the intensive medical care and time away from work could have been financially devastating. “I could have had large medical bills,” she says. “But I had a good medical plan and short-term disability coverage. I know from that personal experience it’s important to provide these kinds of benefits.”
Cato came into the industry gradually, somewhat by happenstance. After studying engineering for a few years in college and struggling through physics, she participated in a summer jobs program that placed her in the human resources department for the United States Postal Service. There, she began to see a career opportunity. “I got a taste of that and refocused my education plans,” she says.
It took her a while to complete her first degree, a bachelor of arts in public administration with an emphasis in human resources. A master’s degree in educational technology followed, all while she was on an impressive career trajectory.
Throughout her decades in the industry and across the breadth of organizations, some aspects of benefits administration have been fairly consistent, Cato says. Fewer employers offer a pension (though Texas A&M does), and the funding sources differ between private and not-for-profit and educational institutions. But some things are true everywhere. Communicating the value of benefits and what is offered “is always a struggle,” Cato says.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought new kinds of changes, some of them unexpected. Utilization of standard healthcare service benefits actually went down in 2020 during the first phase of the pandemic. Cato says that’s because the lockdowns meant that many people put off things like regular checkups and elective surgeries. Later that year and into 2021, particularly when vaccinations became available, people made up for lost time and resumed getting elective and preventive care. Those who were sickened by the virus, of course, also made use of their medical and disability benefits.
But something else came to the fore with COVID-19: an increased need for mental healthcare.
“What has truly changed is that people now feel the freedom to talk about it,” Cato says. “People are willing to say they’re stressed. Michelle Obama said it publicly, saying ‘It’s okay to say I’m not all right.’ In the past we might have had EAP [employee assistance programs] in plans, but now we’re finding new ways to support mental healthcare.”
“People thank us for the programs we provide. It means a lot to me to hear a program has changed a life.”
Speaking from her experiences in Arizona and Texas, Cato says organizations that had telemedicine functions in place already were well set up for pandemic working conditions. “Utilization of telemedicine was way up,” she says. That pertained to primary care consultations as well as mental healthcare.
She adds that benefits that address wellness are integral to mental health as well. “If you’re struggling with your weight, you might also be stressed,” she says. “That leads to other issues.” The A&M System offers wellness classes as well as virtual conferences on the value of walking, meditating, and getting out of the habit of sitting too much. It also provides parents with counseling on how to limit their children’s cell phone use.
“In the time I have worked with Judy since she joined the A&M System, it’s clear that she prioritizes whole personal health as a key component of their benefits strategy,” says Jon Molberg, senior account executive at Express Scripts. “At Judy’s lead, we work together to provide simple, affordable, and predictable healthcare by ensuring personalized communications and tools to drive the best health outcomes for all Texas A&M System members.”
Cato has now earned a third degree, a master’s in theology that she began after coming out of her coma. “From my near-death experience, I felt called into the ministry,” she says. While she still works full-time for the university, she also manages to teach and preach in her church. In addition, she serves on community boards that are largely focused on health causes.
“I’ve been blessed with a diversity of experiences—including company mergers, working across different states, international benefits, and creating programs from the ground up,” she says. “People of all kinds have basic needs that have to be served.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas is committed to chronic disease management. We impact healthcare cost by providing services like navigation, cost comparison, and adherence support. Judy Cato and Texas A&M have been stellar partners on this commitment. Together, we’re setting an example for Texas.