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Hill County Commission meeting turns contentious over vote reversal

County reverses decision on workers’ comp insurance provider

 

Last updated 1/28/2022 at 11:18am



The Hill County Commission has reversed its decision to change their workers’ compensation insurance provider over to PayneWest Insurance, which was voted on two weeks ago, and stay with Koefod Agency, prompting a heated discussion about the reversal.

Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson said upon reviewing their decision to switch to PayneWest, the commission felt that they did not give Koefod a chance to speak with the insurance committee and make a case for their agency. They made a motion to switch back to them for workers’ compensation insurance.

This sentiment was echoed by fellow commissioner Jake Strissel who said Koefod should have been given a chance to present to the committee.

Hill County Clerk and Recorder Sue Armstrong asked what case Koefod had to make given the fact that the county has been using them for years and is well aware of what they offer.

She said one of the big reasons the insurance committee recommended the switch to PayneWest was so they could help close out a lot of old claims the county still had. But Peterson said upon further investigation, including some inquires made to the Montana State Fund, this doesn’t appear to be something PayneWest or any agency is allowed to do.

Peterson said the commission and the insurance committee were under the impression, based on meetings with PayneWest, that the agency could help close these claims, but he thinks the county may have misunderstood what PayneWest was actually offering.

Armstrong asked if the commission had reached out to PayneWest for clarification on the matter, but did not receive a clear answer.

She also asked if notice had been sent to PayneWest after the vote was taken two weeks ago, and expressed concern about this reversal.

Hill County Safety Coordinator Sheri Williams, who is also the commission’s administrative secretary, said the idea that PayneWest could close some of the claims wasn’t the only reason the committee recommended them.

Williams said in addition to helping lower the county’s MOD rates, which are used to price workers’ compensation insurance premiums, they would also help set up a comprehensive work safety program, including safety orientation for county employees, something Williams has been working for a long time to get going but needs help to do.

Hill County has one of the highest workers’ compensation rates in Montana, she later said, and setting up a safety program could save the county between $70,000 and $100,000, around the same amount as the budget for some county departments.

She said PayneWest has the tools, material and experience to help set up this program which would be a huge asset to the county and tax payers, both of whom would be saving money.

She said as much as she appreciates Koefod and the service they provide to the county, including supporting the WorkSafe Champions classes Williams set up last year, she doesn’t think they can set up the same kind of program PayneWest could, and the county needs to do something about its workers’ compensation problem.

During the meeting Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean said the problem isn’t the fault of Keofod, but the fact that county policies aren’t being followed.

“We have accident forms, we have reporting forms, investigation check lists, safety-inspection checklists, inspected-area timeframes, self-inspection guidelines, and the problem is not our insurance company, the problem is Hill County is not following our policy,” she said.

Williams asked if the county has a program up and running to orient employees with those policies.

At this point in the meeting Peterson attempted to end the discussion, to be continued privately, saying this was not a matter for the public hear, but Williams pushed back on the attempt to shutdown the discussion and said the commission is not answering direct questions on the matter.

Peterson then accused Williams of acting inappropriately.

“You’re overstepping your bounds as a secretary,” he said.

Williams reminded him that she was speaking as County Safety Coordinator and she has the right to engage in this discussion.

“I’ve asked specific questions that refuse to be answered,” she said.

Armstrong backed up Williams.

“She does have the right to speak,” she said.

Williams once again asked the commissioners if there was any county program that provides safety orientation to county employees, a question that was met with silence.

She then asked if Koefod could help set up a safety program like PayneWest offered to, McLean told her to ask Koefod then called for a vote before discussion could continue.

The commissioners voted unanimously to reverse their previous decision and stick with Koefod for their workers’ compensation insurance.

After the vote was taken Peterson asked if the commission had ever been sent a letter with the insurance committee’s recommendation to switch to PayneWest and McLean said they only received one after they voted to switch two week ago.

Williams pushed back on this, as well, saying a letter was given to Strissel with the recommendation that they switch to PayneWest well before it came up for a vote, but it apparently never got to them.

Strissel said this morning that Williams is mistaken regarding the letter, that the committee decides on recommendations and those recommendations are given verbally at the meeting where the decision will be made by the commission, as is their standard operating procedure.

The letter McLean was referring to, dated Jan. 24, says it was written at her request and it lays out the committee’s reasons for recommending the switch to PayneWest, including their ability to help them set up the safety program Williams spoke about.

After the vote Thursday McLean also said she didn’t feel comfortable using an agency outside the community when they have taxpayers just down the street.

Williams said this is not a standard that was applied when the county decided to start offering county employees the option to get life insurance policies from New York Life, and no local providers were given the same chance.

Williams said the committee made the recommendation in favor of New York Life as well, but McLean said she received no such recommendation.

After the meeting Strissel said William Pierce from New York Life approached the commission regarding offering a separate life insurance policy to county employees than what is already offered through the Montana Association of Counties and they advised him to meet with the insurance committee, which he did.

He said the insurance committee did indeed recommend that the commission allow New York Life to offer life insurance policies to county employees, though he clarified that the county doesn’t pay into any of those policies and employees can take their policy with them if they were to leave their employment with the county.

He said neither the commission nor the insurance committee solicited Mr. Pierce, much like PayneWest.

During the meeting McLean said the choice to go with New York Life might be something to revisit, but Armstrong said it’s a little late for that considering how many employees have already signed up with them.

McLean said ultimately the insurance committee needs to realize that it is a committee and their job is to make recommendations, not decisions, a sentiment echoed by Strissel this morning.

Later, Williams said being completely blindsided by this reversal was extremely disheartening, especially since PayneWest had the resources to help her get her safety program set up, resources she just doesn’t have access to otherwise.

 

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