After extensive debate, council approves employee insurance plan

City Human Resources Director Reather Hollowell answers questions about the city’s new health insurance plan from Columbus Council today.
City Human Resources Director Reather Hollowell answers questions about the city’s new health insurance plan from Columbus Council today. mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

After two-and-a-half hours of debate and two separate votes, Columbus Council approved the city’s employee health insurance plan on Tuesday.

An initial vote failed as inconclusive on a 5-4 vote, with Skip Henderson, Mike Baker, Mimi Woodson, Evelyn Turner-Pugh and Glenn Davis voting to approve the insurance plan and Pops Barnes, Gary Allen, Walker Garrett and Judy Thomas opposed. Councilor Bruce Huff was absent.

City Manager Isaiah Hugley stressed to councilors the need for them to make a decision because the city’s open enrollment period is looming in about two weeks. Postponing a decision until the next council meeting would mean delaying open enrollment, Hugley said.

After more debate, Henderson made a plea to his fellow councilors to accept the program as is so the administration could move forward with open enrollment.

Woodson then made a motion to vote on the matter again and Baker seconded. It passed the second time with Henderson, Baker, Woodson, Allen, Turner-Pugh and Davis approving and Garrett and Thomas opposed. Barnes left the meeting between the votes.

The new insurance plan will increase employee premiums, but a 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase approved in the fiscal 2017 budget will more than cover the higher premiums for the vast majority of employees who opt for the less expensive option, according to Human Resources Director Reather Hollowell.

The new insurance plan replaces the old three-plan program with a two-plan approach. It eliminates the Health and Wellness Center program, but opens the city health clinic to all city employees, not just those on that plan.

Employees currently in the Health and Wellness plan will see the most significant changes in their coverage and premiums. Their deductible will quadruple from $500 per individual and $1,000 per family to $2,000 per individual and $4,000 per family. Employees in the current HMO and PPO plans, which are also being eliminated, will see their deductibles double, from $1,000 per individual and $2,000 per family to $2,000 and $4,000.

The three plans are being replaced with a “silver” and “gold” plans, both of which are Point of Service plans.

Premiums for the current HMO plan range from $71 per two-week pay period for individuals up to $196 for full families. If those employees choose the gold plan next year, their premiums would range from $104 per pay period for individuals to $290 for full families.

Employees currently in the HWC plan have premiums ranging from $60 a pay period for individuals to $165 for full families. If they opt for the silver plan, their rates would range from $75 per pay period for individuals to $202 for full families.

The proposed insurance plan also includes a wellness incentives program. Under it, employees would undergo a biometric screening, a health risk assessment and, if deemed necessary, would be provided with a health coach to advise and supervise a wellness program. The program would be voluntary, but employees who participate would earn a $500 annual credit toward their deductible.

Tueday’s debate was over the amount of increase employees were being asked to pay. It’s the same 70-30 percent split that the city has been using, but it hits employees harder this year because the city is trying to avoid an end-of-the-year balloon payment that it has incurred in recent years. The payments have occurred because the city hasn’t budgeted enough per employee to cover the costs, and when the amount budgeted (which is paid 70 percent by taxpayers and 30 percent by employee premiums) is insufficient, the taxpayers have to pick up the tab.

Last year, for example, when the insufficient funds were added to the city’s tab, it was actually paying about 83 percent to the employees’ 17 percent.

Some of the ideas batted around today included Walker’s suggestion to do away with the employees’ 2 percent COLA and take that money, divide it evenly among employees and reduce their premiums by that amount. That, Garrett said, would better assist the lower paid employees, who need the most help.

Hugley responded that the COLA benefits employees more than just by putting a few more dollars in their paychecks. By increasing their salary, they will also increase their retirement benefits, Hugley said.

Allen suggested that the city dip further into its cash reserves to lower the employees’ portion of the cost, but he didn’t get much support after Mayor Teresa Tomlinson reminded councilors that the reserves are already below the 60-day level, which is a benchmark used by bond rating companies to grade cities.

Land swap deal

In other business, Council unanimously approved a land swap with the Muscogee County School District, which will give the school district property upon which to expand and the city land to use for transportation and recreational purposes.

The land swap will cede city property on Fort Benning and Cusseta Roads to the school district in exchange for property on Buena Vista Road and Alexander Street. Because the city property is valued at almost $1.5 million and the school district property at almost $700,000, the school district will also pay the city almost $750,000 to cover the difference, city documents show.

That money would then be placed in an Enterprise Zone fund to be used for south Columbus redevelopment projects.