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Commission to vote on change that would increase county employee health insurance costs


April 29, 2020

Editor’s note: This version corrects the spelling of Jim Litzinger’s name. It also adds that Hill County Commissioners Mike Wendland and Mark Peterson did not respond to requests for comment, that it is a budget change, not a policy change, and removes a line saying Commissioner Diane McLean said she doesn't think employees would quit.

The Hill County Commission is considering a budget change that will result in a substantial increase to what county employees pay for their health insurance, with some county employees saying it could result in them having to take less robust policies or even quit their jobs.

“Our wages don’t support it,” said Jim Litzinger, a heavy equipment operator who works for the county.

Litzinger said wages at the county are already low and this potential increase to the cost of county employee health insurance is unjustifiable.

“I work for a government agency and I can get my kids on Medicaid and I could get food stamps and it’s just not right. It’s just not right that they’re trying to push more of it off on us,” he said.

Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean said the decrease in county payments on employees’ insurance premiums would allow for the commission to give Hill County homeowners a tax break based on the value of their homes.

She said no official estimate has been made for how much the average taxpayer would save with this tax cut.

A document provided by the Hill County Clerk and Recorder’s Office showed a taxpayer who owns a home with a market value of $200,000 would see savings of $7.09 per year.

Hill County Commissioners Mark Peterson and Mike Wendland did not respond to requests for comment the Havre Daily News started making Friday.

Shane Huston, another heavy equipment operator working for the county, said the tax break and the accompanying increase to county employees share of insurance premium payments costs put an unfairly concentrated amount of financial burden on a small number of people.

“They’re basically having 100 people fund this tax break for the remainder of Hill County,” Huston said

Litzinger and other county employees said the change is particularly egregious because the insurance rates themselves have not changed by much in the past year.

The proposed changes, which were discussed at the Hill County Commission’s weekly business meeting last Thursday, would not increase the costs to those county employees who only insure themselves, but would raise the portion employees pay if they are insuring a spouse or children.

Under the current proposal, depending on the plan selected, county employees looking to insure a spouse could see their contribution rise by 14 percent to 104 percent, the cost of insuring a child would rise by 8 percent to 206 percent, and those looking to insure a family would see an increase of between 63 percent and 395 percent.

Litzinger said he is not insuring any family, so his personal cost won’t be affected by this change, but he said he is angry on behalf of his fellow employees who would see their costs go up.

McLean said she had no comment on some employees’ claims that their wages don’t justify this increase or that it places unfair financial burden on them.

“That’s an opinion, any way you look at it,” she said.

She also said quitting a job is up to the employee.

“It’s been my experience of the past three years as part of the commission, which is an employer in this area, that we have had employees leave for multiple reasons,” she said.

Hill County Public Health Director Kim Larson said she’s heard fellow employees tell her that the proposed increase could cause them to quit.

“I’m the highest-paid employee in my department and I would be struggling to live paycheck to paycheck with that much of an increase,” Larson said, “I’ve had some of my employees who have been here for years tell me if this happens, they will probably have to quit.”

Larson said that even under the second proposed set of changes, which features less dramatic increases to employee costs and is now the only one being considered by the commission, she would see her own insurance costs more than double.

“For instance, my personal plan if I have my family on it I pay, only for the health portion, about $200 a month… but it would go up to 444 a month which is a huge increase,” she said.

Larson said these increases would be especially detrimental to her department given the nature of its employees’ work.

“In my department, almost every single person here has to have a degree and a license and continuing education in order to continue to work here, and when you are not compensated for all of that on the level that you should be, having these benefits is extremely important, and when it’s taken away it almost feels like a slap to the face,” she said.

Larson said she also is concerned that these raised costs would cause those who are able to keep their jobs to take less robust policies in order to stay financially afloat, and that this amounts to the commission effectively taking away benefits for county employees.

McLean said the commission’s proposal does not do that.

“The assertion that we’re taking the benefits away is not true,” McLean said.

She said the decision to take another health insurance plan is a purely personal financial decision and that she cannot make that decision for her employees.

Larson said raising the employee contributions as much as proposed does just that.

“I just think it’s a big problem if they truly don’t see it as them taking away benefits from their employees because that’s exactly what they are doing,” she said.

She said she’s also concerned that these increases will make it difficult for the county to attract new employees.

“We’ve always been told that the wages at the county are lower, but the benefit package we get really helps with that, and that’s what’s really brought a lot of people to work here,” Larson said.

Litzinger made similar comments. He said said the benefits package the county provides has always been an attraction of the job.

“That’s one thing that Hill County could pride itself on was the insurance, that’s what got a lot of people to come to work for Hill County… it’s not the wages,” he said.

Larson also criticized the way the commission handled informing her and her fellow employees last week about the proposed changes.

“It caught me off guard because we were told about it on Tuesday when they commissioners were going to vote on it that Thursday. It didn’t really give Hill County employees much time to look at the difference in the rates. I’m kind of shocked by the percentage increase that would happen to everybody’s portion.”

Huston said the way the commission has handled the issue gives the appearance of dishonestly.

“It seems like kind of a shady deal in my opinion,” Houston said.

McLean said a number of factors caused the lack of communication, none of them were dishonest in intent.

“It was not intentionally shady, the information was not timely shared with them do to many factors, one being a personal health issue for myself taking me out of this office for some time,” she said.

McLean said the commission does bear some responsibility for the lack of communication.

“I would agree that our timeliness and perhaps the way things got shared was not the best that it should have been,” she said, “It could have been done in a much better manner.”

Larson said she is inclined to believe that sincere mistakes contributed to the lack of communication, but said she still has concerns about how the matter is being handled.

“They didn’t want any input from employees at all, clearly, because they didn’t ask for it and I have a major issue with that,” she said.

McLean said that many, especially on social media, are attempting to portray her and the commission as being malicious in its intent, and that that view is misinformed.

“The insinuation that my intent is malicious to employees is entirely wrong,” she said, “Since I’ve been in office, I can reiterate several times when I have been a driving force in increasing a wage for a particular position.”

Litzinger said he and his fellow employees have gone to the commission a number of times over the years before McLean was elected, asking for raises, and that their benefits package was often used as an argument against giving them raises.

“If we go in for a raise and say we want to get a dollar more an hour or 50 cents, whatever it is, they always tell us ‘No, there is no money for raises, we will keep the insurance the same,’” he said, “So we’ve been doing this for several years, and now all of a sudden they want to bump up our insurance.”

Litzinger said it was suggested at last week’s Hill County Commission Business meeting that county employees with families could investigate state-funded programs to help them out, which he found somewhat disheartening considering these organizations are taxpayer funded.

“It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

McLean said that is an avenue open to county employees, but that she doesn’t recall any suggestion like that being made at the meeting.

McLean said many people have gotten in touch with her and she is weighing their input, but the vote cannot be delayed much longer.

She said this vote needs to happen as soon as possible so it can be in place when MACo begins its insurance open enrollment in May.

The vote on the change is scheduled to take place during the Hill County Commission’s Weekly business meeting Thursday at 10 a.m.

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