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Panel OKs insurance premium increase

By Curtis Carden

With a July 1 health insurance enrollment deadline looming, Unicoi County employees can expect an increase to the cost of health coverage – for the time being.

During the county’s Employee Benefits/Insurance/Policy Committee meeting on Monday, May 16, officials approved the Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBST) renewal for 2016-17 and to bring it before the Unicoi County Commission for approval on Monday, May 23.

Insurance claims near the end of the recent fiscal year led to an increase of 10.8 percent in the cost of insurance for 2016-17.

“Things were steady for the start of the year,” John Manfull, with Mark III Employee Benefits and the county’s insurance broker, said. “Towards the end of the year, there were significant claims at the end of the year that brought the increase.”

BCBST offered the most competitive rates, according to Manfull.

According to information provided at the meeting, the BCBST Plan 1 for low-deductible individual plans would move from $13.57 to $69.15 a month; while the family low-deductible plans would shift from $873.43 to $1,018.22 monthly.

For Plan 2, for high-deductible plans, individual plans would remain at no cost; while family plans would bump up from $510.30 to $656.12 a month.

Manfull told everyone in attendance that the county is currently capped at paying $520 for employee premiums, but could vote to increase that payment to help defer the cost from employees.

A spreadsheet at the meeting showed three different options:

• Option 1 featured the county not increasing the $520, which would not increase the amount paid by the county.

• Option 2 considered increasing the amount paid for employee premiums to $540, which would lower the potential cost of individual coverage to $49.15 and trimming the family coverage to $636.12. Option 2 would cost the county an extra $25,440.

• Option 3 would include the county paying $550 for individual low- and high-deductible coverage, while paying $595 for family coverage. Option 3 would cost an extra $40,860.

“We’re not going to know how much money we have until the books close in June,” Commissioner Gene Wilson said about the county potentially paying more for employees’ coverage.

“We want to do what we can to absorb the cost for the employees,” Commissioner Glenn White said, “but we don’t know how much money we’re going to have to do anything.”

The topic of funds being available from the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department due the department expected to receive revenue from the $650,000 projected from state inmates to help offset costs was passed along by Commissioner John Mosley. The comment was followed by White asking Sheriff Mike Hensley, who was in attendance Monday, about recent findings during a jail committee meeting mentioning the department netted only $20,000 from inmates.

“We’ve had further studies show that it’s more than what was discussed,” Hensley said. “I don’t have it with me for this meeting, but there were a lot of variables that went into place.”

Hensley added that while he didn’t envy the job of commissioners working on the budget with the shape the county is in, he said the county needs to do something for the county employees.

“I understand the financial situation we’re in, but we need to take care of our employees,” Hensley said. “I’m just speaking for my department, but I’ve lost nine good officers due to benefits. I know it would be hard for other employees to pay these increases.”

While the county is looking to potentially absorb costs, White added that if the funds aren’t available the county would either have to raise taxes or have the employees pay the increase.

“We’ve lost jobs,” Commissioner Kenneth Garland said. “We have citizens that are on social security and some that don’t even have health insurance. I was elected to take care of the taxpayers and that’s what I’m going to do. There’s not going to be a tax increase as far as I’m concerned.”

While discussing options for incentives, Manfull said that high-deductible plans could include a health savings plan for employees, which would allow the county to deposit the $520 currently for employees.

Health care has been a hot topic for the county following up the 2015-2016 budget talks. Working with a $400,000 shortfall, the county eliminated the extra premium match for family insurance. That item was put in place during the 2014-2015 budget year instead of employee pay raises.

The vote to do away with the premium match was at the end of the previous fiscal year and increased monthly premiums for the high/low deductible family insurance from less than $300 to over $850.

In a recent article by the Johnson City press documenting the last Employee Benefits/Insurance/Policy Committee meeting, it was reported that Patty Treadway, county human resources and payroll administrator, told the committee that only five or six county employees have historically carried family except for the two years that the county increased the premium match. The number increased to 18 employees while five county employees have family insurance.

Sarah Bailey, administrator of elections in the county, was on hand during Monday’s meeting. She takes part in county’s current family health coverage and added she would be impacted by the increase which could go into effect for the upcoming year.

Bailey added that the second plan offered BCBST would be a suitable option for employees with family insurance, if the right incentives were in place to have employees take the plan.