Columbus city workers worried about rising health insurance premiums are raising questions about the cost and the timing.
Randy Robertson of the local Fraternal Order of Police wants city leaders to delay a decision on the proposed increases and further study the issue. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson maintains Columbus Council must make a decision by Oct. 9 for a plan to be in place by Jan. 1.
The question is how the city can cover an estimated deficit of $3 million in what it budgeted for worker health care in the 2013 fiscal year. The deficit came to light after consultants with Northwestern Benefit Corporation of Georgia reviewed the city's cost and discovered administrators underestimated it. The company projected a health care cost of $24 million for this fiscal year, compared to $21.5 million last year.
Provisions of the city's current proposal to workers include: The co-pay for a doctor's office visit would go from $15 to $20; the price of an emergency room visit would increase from $50 to $150 if the patient is not admitted; drug costs for generics would drop from $20 to $15, but would increase from $30 to $35 for brand names; and a smoker surcharge would go from $40 to $50.
In a letter to employees, Tomlinson argued the city still pays about 75 percent of each worker's health care tab, which averages around $8,000. The city typically pays $5,650 and the employee about $2,600, she wrote. To deal with the shortfall, the city proposes it and and the worker split the difference, each paying about $250 more a year, she said.
The premium per paycheck increase would range $8 to $33, depending on the health plan, Tomlinson said.
Critics say such increases may seem minimal to higher-paid city supervisors -- like the top administrators making health care decisions -- but the percentage increase means a lot to the lowest-paid employees. Cost-of-living increases of .5 percent this fiscal year and last year won't cover their premium increases, detractors say.
Citywide Councilor Skip Henderson said at Tuesday's council meeting that some workers make as little as $18,000 a year.
Said Robertson: "We have employees living from paycheck to paycheck."
Robertson believes the Oct. 9 deadline is arbitrary, and city leaders needn't rush into this. He wants them to form a group of administrators, lower-tier workers and experts to study the issue further and determine whether more palatable options are available.
He said it's "extremely unfair" for the city to ambush workers with price hikes.
"We're dumping all this on their head in a matter of two weeks," he said, later adding that serious objections resulted from a meeting between the mayor and public safety personnel Tuesday morning: "It seemed to me they felt they were being blindsided."
The matter came before council Sept. 11. A vote had been set for Tuesday, but council delayed that for additional study.
Henderson and council's other citywide representative, Judy Thomas, both said they liked Robertson's idea of forming a health care committee, though they doubted enough time remained for one to affect the decision council must make this year. A committee could take a long-range look at the issue and suggest other cost-saving measures and ways to improve services, they said.
Henderson said delaying a decision on health care costs for this fiscal year could foul up payroll processes and cause other problems.
In an email last week to employees addressing their questions and complaints, Tomlinson wrote that the Oct. 9 deadline is not flexible. The city, which is self-insured with Blue Cross-Blue Shield administering the plan, must hold an open enrollment during which workers register their health coverage preferences, then compile that information and get it to Blue Cross-Blue Shield in time for the plan to take effect Jan. 1.
"With that said, the city has looked at the very last date on which council can decide how to handle the budgetary shortfall for the additional increased health care costs," she wrote. "That date is October 9th. If we don't make a decision by October 9th, there will be delays in you getting your health care coverage cards, difficulty in filling prescriptions and having claims processed, and trouble scheduling with specialists."