Commissioners eye health insurance in budget process

Sep 9, 2012 By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County commissioners focused on potential changes to employee health insurance as a way to address ongoing budgetary concerns during a special meeting Aug. 6 with their department leaders.

"We held the line pretty much for everybody's budget, but looking down the road ... I think part of the survivability next year will be careful spending," said commission chairman Doug Thompson.

"The cash carryover is going to be pretty important next year," he said. "Anything we can save is going to make next year more survivable."

One cost-saving area could be employee health insurance, which continues to rise in cost, Thompson said.

"Are we heading in the right direction? Are we being too tight-fisted" on the benefits package? he asked. "Are they leaving the system? Do you see a different way of maybe providing those benefits?"

Commissioner Travis Becker said one possible solution to stemming rising costs with the county's self-funded health program would be to give employees a monthly raise so they can use the money to find their own insurance.

"It's up to them to take responsibility for themselves on that," Becker said, noting all employees would get a raise regardless of whether they use county insurance.

"You can't discriminate between one employee or another," he said.

County building maintenance supervisor JR Oakley said he has heard from six or eight employees who agree with the idea.

They said "if the county would increase the wages ... they feel they would be better off" to find their own insurance, Oakley said.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said her employees oppose the proposal.

"They felt like the health insurance was part of their salary, and they wouldn't want it to go away," she said.

County transportation department superintendent Dave Pendleton said some employees ditched the county program to join state health insurance.

Noting the costs of insurance, Pendleton said at "$26,000 a year for a family, that's getting out of hand."

Chief deputy county clerk Margy Irvine, a member of the county committee that explores health insurance options, challenged those in the room to find plans cheaper than the program in place.

"I've asked every single individual, 'Go out and show me,'" Irvine said.

Young people have low health insurance costs for six months before they encounter an increase in premiums, she said, noting a recent 25 percent jump for someone she knows.

She said the premiums will be higher for those with major or ongoing health issues.

"I'm all for it if you guys can really prove to me there's something better out there," she added. "I am not seeing what I am hearing here."

Sheriff Skip Hornecker said people with pre-existing conditions will face severely limited health insurance options. He worries they would be unable to get the same level of insurance.

"The other concern I have is how much is enough in the pay envelope," Hornecker said about a possible increase in employee salaries to cover insurance costs.

Money doesn't seem to be answer, the sheriff said.

"We're trying to throw money at a problem because we don't have control over the problem," he said.

Other suggestions included joining a private insurance pool or the state's coverage plan. Irvine said state law allows school districts to join Wyoming government's insurance plan, but any others would need legislative approval.

Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said the issue involves determining how much the county should give to its employees.

"The big concern I really have is how much can the county really afford to provide with benefits," he said. "We have to get some kind of containment on what we're spending on benefits."

His proposal involves providing health insurance for the employee, but the employee would have to pay a significant portion for any dependents on the plan.

Freese said employees need to give their opinions on the matter.

Hickerson said the majority of the health insurance costs come from payments for claims.

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