Havre Daily News
The Hill County commissioners Tuesday chose a health insurance plan for county employees that will likely mean another tax increase to cover rising costs.
A 2003 state law allows municipalities to levy a tax to cover increases in health insurance premiums without voter approval. Both Havre and Hill County have levied the tax in the last two years since the law was passed. In both cases, the tax doubled from the first year to the second.
The county will set the county tax rate for fiscal year 2005-06 in September, Commissioner Doug Kaercher said Tuesday.
Hill County levied 9.95 mills in fiscal year 2003-04, raising about $253,000, and 19 mills the following year, raising about $497,000.
Havre has not determined the coverage it will provide for city employees this year, so new costs are not yet known, city clerk Lowell Swenson said. The city will stay with the same carrier it has now.
In the 2003-04 tax year, Havre levied 8.28 mills for health insurance, raising about $63,000. It levied 17 mills the following year, raising about $132,000.
Both the city and county are self-insured through companies that administer the health insurance for them and provide stop-loss coverage to contain maximum possible costs.
On Tuesday the county decided to switch from Blue Cross Blue Shield Montana to a company used by Montana Joint Powers Trust, a group of municipalities.
"We have spent a lot of time going over and over this," commission chair Kathy Bessette said Tuesday of the county's choice.
Bessette said she had a county resident told her that higher taxes for health insurance may force the woman to sell her house.
Kaercher said the fact that many county residents are uninsured or underinsured also makes increasing the tax a tough decision.
"Unfortunately, as health costs go up, more and more people are uninsured," he said. "It's a hard issue."
Yet Kaercher added that the county's health benefit is a key part of what the county offers its employees.
After reviewing three proposals over several weeks, the county chose a new health plan with coverage similar to what it offered its roughly 130 employees last year. The new plan has lower administrative costs.
The new plan will mean that the county will pay an average rate of $800 per employee per month, including covering family members. Last year the county's plan cost an average rate of $725 per employee per month. The county pays roughly $1 million a year for health insurance.
The Montana Joint Powers Trust plan is administered by Employee Benefit Management Services Inc. EBMS recommended the county pay an average rate of $854 per employee per month but it has decided to pay $800 instead, Commissioner Mike Anderson said today. The county will rely on a reserve of more than $300,000 to make up the difference if its monthly contribution does not cover medical costs.
In a meeting of the compensation committee last week, which determines county employees' raises, Hill County Clerk and Recorder Diane Mellem said her employees have always said they prefer good health benefits to pay increases. In fact, Mellem said, county employees didn't get a pay raise for four years in a row in order to keep their health benefits intact.
In 1999, the county paid about $380 per employee for slightly better coverage than it has now, she said.
At the same meeting, Anderson pointed out that Hill County employees' salaries are below the average for Montana counties in the same class.
"The issue that happened for the county several years ago was that employees decided it was better to have health insurance than higher wages," Kaercher said. The county compensation committee decided in June to put in effect a 2.7 percent salary increase for cost of living. That decision was to be revisited today in another meeting of the committee.
The city and county offer different health plans. City employees must make a monthly contribution of $50 if they are single, $246.70 to include a second person and $328.75 for a family, city deputy clerk Annette Sinney said Tuesday.
The city also has higher deductibles than the county's plan, though employees on the city plan do not have a co-payment for doctor or emergency room visits, which county employees do.
"Check the city wage scale," Bessette said. "They make more money. Our county employees are not paid as well as some other jobs. The difference is we pay all the premium."
Anderson said that when he took office early this year, county empployees told him they wouldn't work for the county if not for the good health insurance.
That doesn't keep some residents from feeling concerned about the rising costs.
"I would hope that they wouldn't come to the taxpayer unless they absolutely have to," said Mel Gomke, who is a member of the Hill County Park Board. "The taxpayer is getting overburdened ... I've got some coverage and it's minimal. I'm in debt to the hosptial here in town and Great Falls, and I'm not too happy to pick up somebody else's premium."