MC health insurance deductible increased by 500%

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An increase from $500 to $2,500 in the annual deductible for health insurance shocked county employees so much last week that the mayor is calling a special commission meeting on June 23.

Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett has set 6:30 p.m. that Tuesday for the special session in the Courthouse Annex on Lewisburg's public square where on Friday afternoon he met with several department leaders who reported their employees are "very upset."

Liggett concurred, having been among the office chiefs who were told at about 12:50 p.m. on Thursday that health insurance benefit changes would be explained at hourly meetings starting at 1 that afternoon.

Details of new insurance policy terms were outlined Monday by Commissioner Mickey King, chairman of the Budget Committee, who acknowledged the shock, but said the county will pay the first $734.18 of the $2,500 deductible.

Still, leaders agreed employees were understandably stunned by the way they were told.

A flier distributed to county employees announcing "Good News!!!" was seen as propaganda as it explained an "exciting opportunity" to have a "high deductible Heath [Health] Plan... alongside a Health Savings Account."

It encouraged workers to "think like a consumer and make smart choices about the medical procedures, health care services and prescriptions you buy."

One woman balked, saying that she's not a doctor and doesn't know if she needs a diagnostic procedure or a different prescription.

"We're talking about people," the mayor said. "We're not talking about light bulbs and toilet paper."

Those building supplies were at issue during commissioners' deliberations on janitorial services for county offices.

"I've had more calls on this one thing than any other issue," Commissioner Scottie Poarch said over the weekend about health insurance cost hikes being shifted to employees. "People have gone three years without a pay raise and now they're going to cut pay?"

With 182 county employees affected in all but the schools department, officials agreed the cost increase shifted to employees would affect nearly 250 people. For many, it would feel like a pay cut.

"Eighty percent of them," Roads Superintendent Jerry Williams said of his department employees, "can't afford to come up with $2,000 to go to the doctor's office."

A woman working for the county didn't like an insurance agent's suggestion that a woman diagnosed with breast cancer should research her illness on the Internet. As she expressed disbelief, declaring that she's not a doctor," a co-worker rejected advice to pay for medical services with a credit card if the patient couldn't afford the doctor's bill.

One woman called Poarch in tears, he said. Furthermore, the county has an employee with multiple sclerosis who does not have the money to pay the increased cost.

"We knew we'd get phone calls," King said. "It is a pretty good sized deductible. That's what they're concerned about. We are, too."

County health insurance costs the county $1,184,359 annually. It's the amount budgeted for the three fiscal years of 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10.

"It was going up 15 percent," King said of the overall cost of insurance for county employees, excluding teachers and other school system workers who have a separate plan.

Given the increase in costs, the committee led by King decided to change the policy.

"They're getting a different policy with the deductible," King continued. "The policy we have now was an 80-20 policy, meaning 80 percent is paid after the deductible is met."

Under the policy starting with the next county budget, he said, "After $2,500 is spent they get 100 percent coverage no matter what it is."

Another detail about the new coverage is $734.18 placed in an employee's account to defer the early cost of deductibles, or set aside for later, King said.

"It is their money to pay for their deductible," he said, confirming that the net effect could be seen as lowering the deductible from $2,500 to $1,765.82.

"Some will benefit greatly from it and some won't ever pay the deductible," King said, "and some won't spend more than $2,500."

Because employees would control how the $734.18 is spent, the overview of an increase in the deductible from $500 to $2,500 - a five-fold increase - remains accurate, although, according to Commissioner Don Ledford, that is "a quick Reader's Digest version" of the situation.

Ledford, a member of the Budget Committee that dealt with the employees' health insurance issue on June 4, emphasized that commissioners appreciate the work done by county employees.

"They don't get the accolades they deserve for what they do," the commissioner continued, "but it's like we want all this service but we don't want to pay more. We all know that things go up and health insurance is a fringe benefit.

"The way I understood it... there would have been a sizeable dollar increase in the premium and so the question was asked and information brought on how to make this better and the agent brought... options... It appeared that was the best option," Ledford said. "Perhaps there is something in between [the options] and hopefully we have time to do that."

Commissioners have an obligation to employees and taxpayers and must balance the two, he said.

The system selected by the Budget Committee is not new, he said. Other employee groups have it. There may be something better... [but] "obviously we're strapped for money. We've got folks who have closed plants. There's a direct ripple effect.

"Everybody is trying to cope with these economic times," Ledford said, describing insurance as part of a "benefit package, something in addition" to pay.

"If there's a better way, I'd be open to it," Ledford said, adding, "Someone over the weekend suggested just giving the employees the cost of the insurance and let them buy their own..."

Meanwhile, the budget committee is to hold its third weekly budget committee meeting from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday, June 18, to discuss revenue and spending plans.

However, as of Monday, few county leaders had a firm grasp on the amount of money that would be generated by each penny on the property tax rate. It's a basic place to start when formulating a budget. County Board of Equalization meetings are being held this week and its deliberations will have an impact on the calculation.