County staff may pay more for coverage

If your paycheck is from Rappahannock County, you might be in for some bad news.

The county’s supervisors were to have been presented Wednesday (Sept. 5) with a proposal to overhaul health care insurance for the roughly 230 women and men on the county payroll, including teachers and others at the schools, and deputies and others in various departments.

Though the earliest any changes would take effect would be next summer (the county’s fiscal year starts July 1; the school division’s Oct. 1), County Administrator John McCarthy said, if the supervisors decide to enact the proposal, “it will look like a pay cut.” Speaking of the two affected groups, county employees and school personnel, McCarthy added that “there will be pain on both sides.”

The proposal is the work of an eight-person committee called the Joint Benefits Study Group, which was created by the supervisors after the current fiscal year’s budget process was completed in May.

The committee’s recommendation, one it maintains will bring Rappahannock County into alignment with surrounding jurisdictions, is that that employees would, in most cases, pay for all their dependents’ health coverage.

McCarthy said Tuesday that potential cost savings are “a moving target,” and will be difficult to calculate until the next fiscal year begins – at which point the county and schools will know how many employees have chosen the proposed plan’s $200, $500 and $1,000 deductible levels, and what next year’s insurance rates will be.

“If we just stopped paying for dependent coverage today,” McCarthy said, “we know it would save the county about $50,000 and the schools about $80,000, but that’s obviously not going to happen, and those numbers are fairly meaningless until next year.”

Keeping up with neighbors

The Joint Study Group, chaired by McCarthy and populated by citizens, supervisors and school board members, spent a great deal of its time during the summer comparing Rappahannock salaries, benefits and premiums with those of neighboring counties. After noting the sharp rise in health-care costs over the past decade, the group’s report to the supervisors notes: “In short, benefits in neighboring local governments have decreased, in general, with employees asked to pay an increasing share of the costs.” That, indeed, is what is being recommended for Rappahannock County.

The Study Group finds that, in those counties nearby, the local government generally offers “a variety of health plans for their employees to choose from”; that the counties increasingly “pay for all or the largest portion of the single-subscriber premium, with the employee electing what level of coverage is best for him or her.” The report adds in the nearby areas, employees “may use the money contributed by the employer (meaning the county government) towards whatever coverage” he or she chooses.

During the last meeting of the study group, as final deliberations were winding down, citizen representative Ron Makela observed: “We are coming into alignment with the rest of the world.”

Makela also noted that the complexities involved – benefits, deductibles, co-insurance, flexible-spending accounts, bundles – can make the issue “incredibly confusing.”

A health plan seminar sometime later in the school year – perhaps late in the fall or during the winter – might indeed take all day. An official from Anthem Blue Cross, the county’s current provider, would be present to answer questions of teachers and county employees, though other providers would be asked to bid if the study group’s proposal comes to pass, said McCarthy.

Among the the group’s other recommendations were flexible spending accounts, which can offer up to $5,000 pre-tax salary deferral to be spent on health care. Co-insurance is also suggested by the group. This means simply that those who go to the doctor more often pay more; those with fewer visits and fewer health problems, pay less.

Finally, the group suggests the county and the schools save money by bundling with its health care plans other insurances, such as short- and long-term disability insurance coverage.

After three meetings in August, the group itself has now disbanded. It was composed of eight county men and women and some county and school staff. All worked without any overtime or other extra pay. Two citizens, not part of either staff, also worked without pay.

To observe the group in action was to be watching a live performance of a Norman Rockwell scene. Individuals of varying descriptions and politics wrestling with the enormous confusion of the health-care tangle, during a limping economy, studying what the neighboring counties are doing, trying to save their county some money while attempting to keep teachers and deputies and others from fleeing.