By: Benjamin J. Gohs, Associate Editor
Charlevoix County Commissioners and their employees continue to quibble over a proposed new health insurance plan.
While commissioners try to save tax funds and comply with newly-passed Senate Bill 7, some county employees are concerned with the potential for an increase in the costs of their health insurance.
“I would like the board to also consider what they are going to do for those employees who have spouses that are on the health insurance who are not eligible for this (proposed new) plan,” said Charlevoix County Treasurer Marilyn Cousineau.
Cousineau said her husband is a veteran and gets disability payments.
“He has to see a VA (Veterans Affairs) doctor once a year and they’re telling me that he can’t be on this plan,” she said. “I know that there’s one or two others that maybe have the same issue and I would just like to know what the commissioners are going to do.”
Charlevoix County Commissioner Richard Gillespie said he would like to see the questions submitted in writing so the county’s insurance expert can get answers for the board and the county employees.
“We have to do something,” Gillespie said. “We can’t just keep spending other people’s money – I don’t want to say frivolously because that isn’t what I mean, but we do have to be diligent.”
Cousineau said it will be $2,250 coming out of her pocket if her husband has to use his deductible on the proposed insurance plan.
“So that means while you’re giving the other employees that have spouses the $2,250 because they qualify I have to pay that $2,250 out of my pocket so in essence I’m losing that benefit – I’m taking that cut in pay,” she said.
Reinhardt asked if it were possible to leave some of the employees on the old health plan.
Charlevoix County Clerk Cherie Browe said some employees could remain on the old insurance plan while the rest of the employees are moved to the new plan.
“If just creating another class, that’s going to be the biggest problem,” said Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen (R-District 2). “You can’t continue to slice and dice the employee. We’ve already got employees before such a date, employees after such a date.”
The county began looking into the cost of the health care insurance it provides to its employees after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law which forces municipalities to make their employees pay at least 20 percent of their health care costs; however certain municipalities may opt out of the law by agreeing to forfeit future revenue sharing monies.
“As far as I’m concerned if you were to stay under the current one, if we were to allow that, then you gotta pay your deductibles and everything because we’re not going to do it,” Reinhardt said. “Under the health savings account you’re actually getting a raise.”
County officials claim they will see a savings of nearly $500,000 even if they fund each employee’s health savings account with $4,500 for the first year if the new insurance plan is taken.
Charlevoix County District Judge Richard May said the proposed insurance plan would save $5,563 per year for a full family.
“The key if you go to the health savings account is that savings is with the understanding that the board puts in the $4,500 or the deductible and the co-pay and that’s really the only way that works so the employees maintain the same benefit,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than being in between a health care provider and Blue Cross – Six kids, I’ve been there a lot and you have a debate between what they charge and what Blue Cross is paying.”
May added, “I don’t think the employees should be put in that position.”
May said his larger point is that the county has been fiscally responsible and there has been reduced cost of living increases for the sole purpose of retaining the employees’ health care coverage.
“Over those (last) 15 years the cost of living increased 44 percent – employees have received 29 percent, so they are already paying 15 percent,” he said. “The majority of our employees make under $35,000 and it takes them 15 years to get there. It would be, in my opinion, immoral … if you take somebody who makes $35,000, and once they pay Social Security, Medicare, state taxes, federal taxes you reduce their income by $4,230 which is the co-pay.”
May added, “I think it’s important at a minimum for the board to opt out of Senate Bill 7.”
Browe said there is some misconception that after the deductible is paid there is no more out-of-pocket cost and she has asked the board to fund the employee deductibles in perpetuity and the co-pay for the first three years.
Reinhardt said the county is helping the majority of the employees and he is willing to allow the few employees who have spouses that don’t qualify for the proposed insurance plan.
James Raber, Charlevoix County Friend of the Court said compared to other states, Michigan does not overtax its citizens to pay for governmental services.
“We rank 46th out of 50 states as far as the lowest amount per citizen taken per taxes to fund local government,” he said. “Everybody in this room was asked to cut out of our budget in October and we did. So, now, we’re back to saving more money – we’re not going to save money. You’re not going to return that $400,000 back to the taxpayers.”
Raber added, “So if you’re going to cut my benefit … and then I’m not going to get my money back in taxes from the county, aren’t I getting screwed twice?”
Raber said he’s not necessarily against the health spending account, he just does not want to see his employees lose out on benefits.
Christensen said he is concerned with creating new classes of employees where some get certain benefits and some have others.
“The opportunity, in my mind, when this came up, is we were going to level the field,” he said. “This was a chance for an overhaul. This was a chance to make it fair and equitable.”
Christensen said those currently retired county employees are also going to have to go to a newer model of insurance which will require they pay for part of their health coverage.
Charlevoix County Commissioner Shirlene Tripp (R-District 1) said she is concerned that new employees are paid more than old employees and the newer employees can afford to pay for the difference in insurance while the longer term employees may not be able to.
No action was taken as this was merely an informational session.