Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Insurance Octopus Has Watauga in Its Tentacles

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.


The Marginally Sympathetic Teahadist said...

Huh. A 3% raise and they're complaining about their deductible going up (after the government they probably voted for imposed lots of new costs on insurers).

Tough deal, to be sure. But don't ever forget that the people who pay for that raise, and who pay for that health coverage, aren't doing so hot either.

When folks at ASU have had NO raise AND increased health care costs every year, when private sector workers are losing their jobs, at times like this we better not hear the people whose salaries we pay demanding more of our money.

Anonymous said...

Very moving statement. She should publish it as a letter to the editor. She brings up important questions. Thanks for publishing this.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with her. But, let's not overlook the fact that the people paying her salaries and benefits are, for the most part, sacrificing too! Most people that I know that aren't government employees are making substantially less than they were making 3 years ago. No pay raise? Try a 50% pay cut.
Higher insurance cost? Try getting laid off and trying to pay COBRA rates out of your unemployment check.

I am sorry that county employees have higher costs that they must absorb - but so do the rest of us. Why should county employees be exempt from the financial problems the rest of us deal with ?

And, please be fair. Yes, the deductible went from $750 to $2500 but why no mention of the fact that the county also made $1,000. available to each employee's Health Savings Account to partially offset that increase.

To all the county employees...I hope things get better for you and for all of us. Maybe when we get Obama out of office we can start to make a little progress! It would be great if we could all make a little more money and not have to be paying higher insurance for the obamacare fiasco!

Jenny said...

America will eventually have to go to a single payer health care system. The for-profit health industry is going to destroy the country. The high cost of medical care for companies is one of the primary reasons they move jobs offshore.

Anonymous said...

The health savings account is nothing but a mere tax shelter for the wealthy. In case no one has noticed, Watauga county employees are not white collar workers. Therefore, it is much easier for employees to pay smaller amounts (co-pays) such as $20-$35 for doctor visits and prescriptions than the $2500-$5000 out of pocket expenses they must pay prior to insurance covering anything. The county manager was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that the new insurance plan isn't really saving the county money. If it isn't saving the county money, then who benefits from a health savings account? The short answer: higher salaried employees...and who are the highest paid county employees? Ones with those salaries can use the health savings account as an advantage for themselves by putting a lot of money into an account that is tax-free and use later during retirement on whatever they choose. Is this self-serving for a few or is this best option for all county employees?

Camelot said...

Marginally sympathetic Teahadist,
You didn't fair well in reading comprehension did you. She said that if they had been consulted they would have given up the raise to keep their current insurance or to get the cost of this plan down more. I see you are one of the many Tea Party who thinks it is funny that people can't get good healthcare. You would have probably cheered with the masses and joined in the Let them Die chant at the debate.

Brushfire said...

Teahadist, There is crowd in this country who are doing very well indeed. The top 5 percent have increased their wealth and power during the past decade while the people who actually do the real work have suffered. We are heading for a return to the feudal system where money flows from the majority at the bottom of the wealth pyramid to the few at the top. No wait, we are already there!

Jenny said...

Anonymous above says why shouldn't county employees suffer just like all the rest of us. Classic. Working people fighting each other over the dime that's left on the table. We shouldn't fall for this bullshit. The problem is the health insurance industry, not other middle class Americans. Let's face it. Pretty soon, no one is going to able to afford even junk health care policies. That's where we're headed.

Anonymous said...

"The health savings account is nothing but a mere tax shelter for the wealthy." Posted by 'anonymous'

So then, you are of the opinion that the $1,000.00 that the county is making available for paying into EVERY EMPLOYEE's account will not benefit those employees?

Anonymous said...

"Everyone in this country has affordable healthcare, Virginia Foxx told us and I believe she like other Republican officials are right and doing the best they can for working people, especially school teachers and county workers.

Don't look over your shoulder, the republican controlled NC general Assembly is planning to underfund Medicaid that will close nursing homes, so you had best cancel your high priced insurance, put a bed in the basement, if you are lucky to have a home, quit your job and become a 24/7 healthcare provider for your relative now in our rest homes on medicaid. Btw, the majority of Medicaid recipients in resthomes came from the middle-class.

Anonymous said...

In response to the health savings account question, I do not consider it a benefit for
ALL employees, but rather a select few. Even with $1000 county contribution that still leaves a $1500 deductible for individuals and a $4000 deductible for families which county employees have the burden of paying out of pocket. Also, the $1000 contribution is not something that will be guaranteed each year. In the upcoming years there may be no contributions at all. Watauga county is not a destitute county, but the new Watauga county health plan will leave many families destitute in terms of them deciding whether to put food on the table, or pay for medications in order to live because they are no longer affordable under the new plan. Most county employees are already living paycheck to paycheck so which do you choose-food for your family or medications to live?

Not Really said...

Amen to what Jenny said. All this wrangling over insurance plans reveals how incredibly inefficient our current system is. People think single payer would be a bureaucratic nightmare? No way, that's what we have now what with HSAs, co-pays, deductibles, etc - not to mention the rationing of healthcare to save money AND the added costs to everyone when preventative medicine isn't covered but emergency room visits are.

Jeff said...

Jenny is right about the high cost of health care being a significant reason why employers cannot hire and why they move overseas where health care is covered in some fashion other than employer-based.

Health care insurance costs for next year are going up astronomically. We are looking at costs for coverage next year for our employees (we aggressively shop around) and we may be looking at something like a 30% increase. That's a huge increase in the cost to our business for the employer share of health care premiums, not to mention a huge increase in the portion of health care premiums that are paid by the employee.

Health insurance increases for 2013 are going to cause many employers to reconsider what health insurance coverage they provide.

Frankly, it also is going to cause many employers -- especially small businesses like ours -- to hold off on hiring new employees unless it's absolutely necessary, because of the significant additional cost per employee.

Mike D. said...

"Most county employees are already living paycheck to paycheck".

I don't get it. This is a choice. Why?

My Dad was a community college teacher, and my Mom stayed at home, raising four kids. Why is it that they were able to save money?

It's one thing to help people who are truly in need. It's another thing entirely to give a free ride to those who choose not to sacrifice their luxuries in the short term in order to create a better future.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there are very many county employees that are overpaid! It has been some time since I last looked at county salaries but when I did I was surprised at how low the rank and file employees were paid.

And even the County manager is not making that much. Certainly not as much as many other NC county managers AND he is doing a damn good job too!

Brushfire said...

Mike - I am of your parent's generation. Back in those days even folks without insurance could afford a trip to the Dr's or dentist office paying cash. Houses were much more affordable before the bubble. A person could work his or her way through college without accruing debt. It's also true that there was less "stuff" to buy, and less pressure to have a house full of "stuff". I'm not sure we can blame individuals for buying into the consumer culture when the president told us to go shopping to help the economy and sent everyone 250 dollars for that purpose. And the vice-president told us that conservation is not important. We are bombarded with SO much more advertising these days and it's very hard to live without a credit card. We really can't blame people for going into debt when all of our culture pressures us to do so.

Brushfire said...

Mike - My real point is - Even if they do without all the toys and eating out, and new clothes and cars, a family supported by a close to minimum wage worker, has no chance of paying for a house, health insurance, or college tuition. My parent's generation could live a decent life with one earner supporting the family, and retire with a secure pension along with Social Security. They had access to affordable health care, and most went to college on the GI plan, or could work their way through. That is hardly possible today. And yet this country is wealthier than any country in the history of the planet. All the wealth is being transferred upward into a small group at the top of the pyramid. We are becoming more rigidly stratified and losing out on all the talent in the 99% who are struggling for bare survival.

Anonymous said...

Brushfire, your point seems to be everything was fine until the big government entitlement proponents of both parties ruined the country.