At its September 19th meeting, the Watauga County Commission voted to change its health insurance benefit for over 200 county workers to a “Health Savings Account,” which carries with it a whopping $2,500 deductible for each employee, almost three times the burden that they’ve had to meet in the past. The new arrangement is set to go into effect in January 2012 and is the direct result of rising insurance premiums imposed by an insurance industry notorious for gouging profit and so obviously rushing to "beat" what small reforms were enacted last year.
At tonight’s Commission meeting, a group of county employees spoke out and pushed back against the significant impact on their lives that this change in health-care coverage will bring. One woman described the fix she’ll be in: she has a genetic heart problem requiring heart medicine prescriptions that run $470 a month. “I simply don’t make enough to afford that.” She would, she said, willingly drop the county plan to get on her husband’s health insurance, but the county won’t let her opt out. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked.
Another employee read the following statement, and from the applause that followed, she seemed to speak for every county employee in the audience:
I am speaking tonight as an employee and citizen of Watauga County in response to the recent change to the county’s health care plan. These are my views and should not reflect the department I work in. The following are questions you can’t answer in this meeting but are questions for you to think about that your employees are asking. I don’t know if it is too late to change your previous rulings or even if you care to do so. What I do know is my parents taught me if you don’t tell someone you think they are doing wrong, then how do you expect them to know there is a problem? I understand other employees will not speak for fear of losing their jobs. I do not let that fear deter me.I found a statement in the September 22nd edition of the Watauga Democrat that stated the county began investigation in March of this year for alternatives for health insurance. Why were employees not notified then and why was a committee not organized to explore options? I realize county administration handles this situation, but other employees could have provided additional perspectives. The fact that the vast majority of employees were not told of this plan until after it was passed and had to learn via the local newspaper is just plain rude to loyal employees, especially those who have worked here for so many years! ...
Here the employee addressed the 3% cost-of-living increase that county employees received in the new county budget, following four years of no raises at all. Might you not have warned us, the employee asked, that the 3% raise was going to come with such big strings attached in the form of this huge change to health insurance? If we had known this was coming, some of us would have opted for a 2% salary increase, and we would have suggested that the other 1% be set aside to offset these new insurance costs. The employee also questioned the county’s fund balance of $25 million and why some of that couldn’t be used to lessen the hardship on employees.
The county worker continued:
Negative effects I see from your decision are as follows:Overall morale -- employees have dealt with no raises for 4 years now, even though the cost of living has skyrocketed. We have done so because our benefits made the difference, which is no longer a true statement.Productivity decrease -- employees will stay home when they are sick now instead of visiting a doctor, because they don’t have the money to pay for it. The extra work load will burden and further tax employees mentally and physically.Is the cost of a life worth the savings? Many people (including myself) are looking at how to pay that $1,500-$4,000 dollars. I would venture that several employees’ spouses are out of work due to the economy, and you’re asking employees to decide something I don’t believe our current commissioners or manager have had to ask. That question is: do I take food away from my child to pay for health care that I myself can’t do without? Most parents will feed their kids, so that can leave an employee’s life very much shortened!
The employee’s conclusion:
Your choice [to change so drastically the health insurance benefits of county employees] will effect up to 15% of the voting population of Watauga County. I do not understand why more thought, team work and outside committee options weren’t given to those this hurts the worst: the employees. I hope it is not too late to change this.
I hope so too. It's as though the entire national health-care crisis suddenly detonated directly over the heads of Watauga's public workers.