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Commissioners wrangle over health plan

Provider doesn’t change, but some will pay more for coverage

News editor

A decision to be made about health insurance at Monday’s county commission meeting turned into a clash over who would take priority: employees or taxpayers.

When all was said and done, single employees ended up having to pay more for health insurance, families a little less, and spectators got to see a tiny bit of fireworks.

A series of meetings to review proposals preceded Monday’s meeting, at which employees filled available seats and stood in the doorway. Last year was the first in which county employees had to contribute to their health insurance costs, and with possible increases, interest among many was high.

Commissioners took care of the easy parts first, voting to continue an existing dental care plan and provide an optional vision plan.

When the discussion turned to health insurance, commissioners waded through an intimidating list of eight options compiled by clerk Tina Spencer.

Commission chairman Dianne Novak favored a plan in which single employees would have seen a $110 increase to their monthly contributions, dropping the county’s portion to just 81 percent of the total premium and netting nearly $53,000 for the budget.

Novak said responsibility to taxpayers figured prominently in her preference.

“To ask the taxpayer to pay 97, 98, 93, 94, 95 percent of the insurance premium is just unacceptable,” Novak said. “When you get down to 81 percent, I’d like to go lower, but to me that’s the start. If you’re paying $40 now to go up to $150 is $110.

“Taxes are a huge issue to people outside municipalities, it’s a huge impact on the elderly. I’m looking at the big picture. A couple of crumbs here, a couple of crumbs there, a little bit here and there, then what’s going to happen at budget time?

“I just think $150 a month for a single premium is not a bank breaker.”

Commissioner Randy Dallke placed his focus on how increases would affect the county’s lowest-paid employees.

“We’ve got some employees under $12 an hour, and that’s maybe still our fault,” he said. “But I can tell you a $150 raise on an under-$12 job is way out of bounds. It’s not even feasible to hit somebody with that.”

Dallke also pointed out that some employees with families opt for single coverage for various reasons.

Commissioner Kent Becker agreed a $110 a month hike would be extreme.

“I’ve talked with some of the employees and I do know that they had to re-budget to handle the $40 last year,” Becker said. “I feel like going up to the $150 is a budget breaker. I think we have to reach some type of happy medium where we keep our employees engaged and happy in what they’re doing. Our benefit package has brought us employees and retained employees.”

Dallke proposed a $20 increase in single coverage that drew fire from Novak.

“How are you going to do it budget-wise?” she said. “If we’re going to hit taxpayers with this much of an insurance benefit, I don’t know if we can give pay increases. It’s hard to look at these elderly people living on fixed incomes and we tell them we’re going to increase everything.”

“Right now, I’m asking the people on single plans to raise to $60,” Dallke said.

“So nothing fazes you, you’re just asking for $60 and that’s that,” Novak said.

“So far,” Dallke said.

Dallke’s motion died for lack of a second.

Becker went back to the scenarios list to propose an alternative that would raise single coverage by $31.15 and kick in $75 more for family coverage. The next impact to the budget would be to increase the county’s cost by $11,474.

The motion passed 2-1 with Novak opposed.

Novak looked toward the audience for her final comment.

“I’m sorry everybody,” she said. “You’ll just have to pay up.”

One employee with single coverage who was displeased with the increase returned at the end of the meeting to voice his displeasure.

“Do you have any idea what it feels like to be a husband and father and try to financially take care of a wife and three children when your take-home salary each month is less than $1,700?” Michael Hurst said. “It’s absolutely impossible.”

Hurst said his wife and children don’t have health insurance because they can’t afford it, even though they try to take advantage of available assistance programs.

Seeing his cost increase while those taking family plan would be paying less than they did last year wasn’t fair, Hurst said.

“Because of fairness, my take-home pay is subsidizing families so they are being able to pay less for their family coverage,” he said.

Commissioners moved on to a presentation by county fire chiefs, who returned to renew their request that the county pay for the new 800Mhz radios they were required to get.

This time, commissioners were responsive to their plea, voting unanimously to reallocate $95,000 previously allocated for a county administrator to pay the lion’s share of the first installment payment due in September.

As a result, departments will be able to spend money for needed equipment and repairs. The money will be allocated to the departments based on the number of radios purchased.

Last modified April 12, 2018

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