Columbus Council took two steps Tuesday toward remedying a $3 million deficit in its employee health care plan.
Councilors approved going forward with negotiations with a health care company to provide a medical clinic for city employees and their dependents and OK'd most of a controversial package of changes in the health plan.
One aspect of the package of changes that was not approved was an increase in employee premiums, removed from the resolution by at-large Councilor Skip Henderson.
At issue are projected health care costs for calendar year 2013, which came in about $3 million more than 2012 costs. To make up for the projected deficit, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson's administration proposed a series of increases in co-pays, deductibles, premiums and fees for smokers and spouses. All but the premiums, which would have produced about $660,000 in revenue, were approved by a 7-3 vote.
The co-pay for a doctor's office visit will rise from $15 to $20. Emergency room visits will increase from $50 to $150. Prescription drug costs for generics will drop from $20 to $15, but increase from $30 to $35 for brand names, and smoker and spousal surcharges will go from $40 to $50.
But proposed premium increases were taken off the table on a motion by Henderson.
"If we have to dip in for a little bit of assistance out of the fund balance, we could prioritize and determine if that's what we want to do going forward for the rest of that calendar year," Henderson said.
Randy Robertson, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, addressed councilors on concerns that city employees have over the proposals. Robertson asked councilors to consider going forward with the status quo, and establish a committee of stakeholders and consultants to address the situation next year.
After a majority of councilors rebuffed that idea, Robertson said he thought council "put a Band-aid on a serious issue."
"I appreciate Councilor Henderson stepping up and at least trying to do something," Robertson said. "But if we don't implement a serious health and wellness plan, if they don't implement the employee clinic, and most importantly, if they don't reach out to the government employee groups, trying to get good educated input from those groups, our health care costs are going to continue to rise and we'll end up back here again next year with another quick-fix."
City leaders expect the proposed medical clinic to produce significant savings not only for taxpayers, but also for city employees.
City Human Resources Director Tom Barron told councilors he and others visited clinics in Chattanooga, Tenn., Montgomery, Ala., Dalton, Ga., and one implemented locally by a large food service company on Fort Benning.
Barron they found that clinics in those places reduced costs of doctor visits, prescription drugs and drastically reduced lab testing costs. It also reduced employee visits to emergency rooms.
The city will now look for a suitable building in which to locate the clinic. Barron said a best-case scenario would be for the clinic to open next April.