As a way to combat rising health care costs, city leaders will ask Columbus Council on Tuesday to approve opening a medical clinic solely for city workers and their families, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said last week.
Speaking to a gathering of city workers at the Muscogee County Prison on Thursday, Tomlinson said she doesn't want the city to continue to be a "victim" of rising health care costs. Rather, her administration has been investigating the feasibility of contracting with a health care company to open a clinic that would serve only city employees and their dependents.
The city pays about $24 million for health care annually, or about $8,000 per employee. The Consolidated Government pays 75 percent, or about $5,650 per employee, while city workers pay the other 25 percent, or about $2,500 each.
The city is self-insured, meaning it pays medical claims itself, but the plan is administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield.
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Because of rising medical costs, which rose surprisingly this year, the city is considering raising the amount that employees contribute. This has caused considerable consternation among city employees, particularly in Public Safety.
Tomlinson said the city should be proactive in seeking a solution, such as the clinic approach, to either reduce the cost or at lease prevent the kind of increases that put a burden on employees and taxpayers.
"We're not just sitting back and taking this. We're not just going to be a victim to spiraling health care costs," Tomlinson said. "We've had to take it for a long time because there haven't been a lot of alternatives."
Some large employers and city governments have been opening employee clinics and have seen health care costs, if not go down, at least hold steady, Tomlinson said. With health care costs rising between 5 percent and 10 percent a year, holding costs level represents significant savings.
City Human Resources Director Tom Barron has been part of a committee that has been looking into the issue. He has visited similar clinics in Montgomery, Ala., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Dalton, Ga., and in each case, the approach has been a success, he said.
"What we're seeing is absolutely amazing," Barron said. "The real solution to our health care problem is not insurance. It's improving employee health. Because that's where we'll see real savings."
Barron said the employees are more likely to use a clinic because there will be little or no co-pay, and they will have free access to information and advice that will help keep them healthy.
"Those are the things that will keep people out of the hospital, out of the emergency rooms," Barron said.
Richard Beeland, a spokesman for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the city opened its first clinic in 2006 and then had to add another clinic because so many employees opted to use the service. The city is now adding a third larger clinic to consolidate the services.
"It's been very successful, more successful than we'd ever anticipated," Beeland said. "It's saved us money in that we have not had any increase in our health care costs."
Chattanooga is similar in size to Columbus, with about 170,000 residents compared to Columbus' 190,000. The city government is slightly smaller, but not consolidated with the county. It has about 2,400 city employees compared to Columbus' close to 3,000, according to the city's director of insurance, Madeline Green.
Green said that the clinic approach did not immediately save the city money, but its health care costs have held steady for the last six years, while cities such as Columbus, which has opted for a traditional insurance approach, have seen health care costs rise between 5 percent and 10 percent every year.
"What it's done as far as savings is our expense for our insurance product has pretty much stayed flat since the clinic opened," Green said. "Staying flat, while the trend elsewhere is 10 or 11 percent, is really pretty good."
If council approves the clinic concept, and if the city can negotiate a contract with a provider that meets the city's needs, At-large Councilor Judy Thomas said she likes the idea and believes her fellow councilors will embrace the concept.
"I think the employee clinic will make a big difference for us, if and when we get it put into place," Thomas said. "I know there are some (councilors) who are skeptical, but I think they will be fairly receptive."
If council approves going forward with the clinic approach, the administration will negotiate with a provider to start up a facility sometime next year, probably in the summer, Tomlinson said. It will likely be centrally located, possibly along the Wynnton/Macon Road corridor.