Sullivan County eyes changes to health insurance as costs increase

J. H. Osborne • Aug 31, 2013 at 9:14 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Health insurance costs for Sullivan County government and its employees are expected to increase dramatically in January.

A potential shift in how the cost is shared between government coffers — ultimately funded by taxpayers — and employees’ pocketbooks, could soon be on the table for consideration by county commissioners.

Currently, county government foots the bill for 88 percent of premiums for coverage, while employees contribute 12 percent.

Some commissioners are looking to increase the employees’ share, up to as much as 20 percent over the course of a few years.

The Sullivan County Commission’s Insurance Committee has been going through the process of picking an insurance plan for county employees for the year that begins Jan. 1.

The full commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a county budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The proposed budget does not include any new funding for employee health insurance.

The Insurance Committee, however, already has received a renewal offer from the current carrier for employee health insurance — that shows an increase of 38 percent.

At the current 88/12 contribution split, that would mean the county budget would need an additional $1.07 million to fund employee health insurance for the six-month period of Jan. 1 through June 30.

That’s equal to about 3 cents on the county’s property tax rate.

A scheduled meeting of the Insurance Committee last week failed to attract enough members to constitute a quorum. But those who did show up discussed the situation and heard pricing offers for a self-funded insurance program. Without a quorum, no official action could be taken. But members present went on the record with what they’d like to see the county’s insurance broker come back with in the way of possible options.

Committee member Mark Bowery asked the brokers how much of the increase could be blamed on the federal Affordable Care Act. Bowery said he and other commissioners need to know the answer because he is sure a lot of people will be asking them that question.

The brokers said only 2 percent or 3 percent of the increase could be attributed to costs associated with the federal law, commonly called Obamacare.

Four companies responded to a request for proposals for administration of a self-funded plan.

Cost estimates ranged from $7.58 million (from a company the brokers said they weren’t sure wasn’t comparing apples and oranges) to $9.48 million. But those figures don’t represent what the companies said could be the county’s true maximum annual liability — which could run from $9.26 million to $11.6 million.

Consensus among committee members present was to drop talk of switching to a self-funded plan.

County employees currently are covered by Humana.

In addition to Humana’s renewal offer with the 38 percent increase, several other companies submitted proposals — all with increases, and some with not-equal-to-current benefits or in-network access.

One provider, for example, does not consider Mountain States Health Alliance an in-network provider. If the county went with that provider, county employees who wanted to continue going to Mountain States facilities would have to pay more than if they agreed to switch to in-network facilities.

Insurance Committee members who were at the meeting told the county’s insurance broker to go back and tweak the figures to show potential changes to benefits or enrollment guidelines.

The committee will meet again when that work is done.

Things mentioned during the discussion, in addition to shifting more of the premium costs to employees, included: a surcharge for having dependents on your plan; a surcharge for smokers; looking at barring a spouse from enrollment if the spouse has health insurance available through their own employer; and shifting to a higher-deductible or higher co-pays rather than paying higher premiums.

The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet in special called session at 9 a.m. Tuesday, on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse, to vote on the county budget.

A legally required public hearing on the budget is scheduled to begin 30 minutes earlier, at 8:30 a.m.

For more information on county government, including how to contact individual commissioners, visit www.sullivancountytn.gov or call Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey’s office at 323-6417.

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