published Friday, June 10th, 2011

Insurance switch irks county employees


by Dan Whisenhunt

Less than three weeks after approving a contract with Cigna, Hamilton County commissioners said Thursday they don’t like what they are hearing about the county’s health insurance plan.

Commissioners said they are receiving complaints from county employees about the company, whose plan takes effect July 1.

“I’ve had several complaints, too, and I’m really unhappy,” Commissioner Chester Bankston said at Thursday’s agenda session.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said employees say they’re being turned down for upcoming surgeries that would take place under Cigna’s contract and doctors are advising them to get any necessary procedures done before July 1.

On May 26, commissioners voted to switch from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee to Cigna, hoping to save $2.5 million over three years.

Commissioners were wary of the switch then. On Thursday, the issue of employee complaints came up as commissioners discussed a proposal to administer the county’s COBRA insurance program — a plan for laid-off employees to keep their health benefits.

The contract has a 60-day out clause and commissioners told Cigna representatives they were going to watch the company closely after experiencing problems with it in the past. The county had its health insurance through Cigna until 2003, when it switched to BlueCross.

“If they’re starting out like this, it’s disconcerting,” Commissioner Warren Mackey said.

Brent Wick, vice president of sales, said in an emailed statement Thursday evening that Cigna’s services don’t start until July 1 and the company “has not yet handled any Hamilton County claims or made any coverage decisions.”

Wick said the company is working with the county on a smooth transition.

“Benefit levels and services remain the same under Cigna, and we have an expansive network of doctors and hospitals to care for Hamilton County employees and their dependents. In a few instances local doctors may not be in the Cigna network. In these cases, Cigna is committed to working aggressively with them to see if they want to participate in our network,” Wick said.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger urged commissioners to call his staff with concerns.

“We’re going to continue to work with Cigna,” Coppinger said. “Any time you’ve got a transition you’re going to have issues. ... We expect our employees to be treated with respect.”

Also Thursday, Coppinger’s chief of staff, Jeannine Alday, announced she would retire June 20.

Alday started working in the county school system in 1969, later becoming human services administrator for County Executive Dalton Roberts in 1978. As chief of staff, Alday played a “critical role in the day-to-day operations of county government,” Coppinger said.

“Jeannine has exceeded all expectations through her work with numerous boards and agencies, working toward the common goal of making Hamilton County a great place to live,” Coppinger said. “I personally thank her for her service and wish her well in the next chapter of her life. This community is a better place because of people like Jeannine Alday.”

Alday said in a news release that it has been a privilege to serve the county.

“How many people get to be a part of the transformation of their community? It has truly been an honor,” she said.

Coppinger did not mention who might replace Alday.

Before the agenda session, commissioners discussed upcoming redistricting efforts. Henry and commissioners Greg Beck and Fred Skillern met with county employees to go over district lines.

Skillern said it has been precedent to allow the two minority districts — 4, represented by Warren Mackey, and 5, represented by Greg Beck — to draw their boundaries first. Both are Democrats.

Skillern said once that’s done, the Republicans “can fight it out” about the lines of the seven other districts.

Beck said allowing the two minority commissioners to get the first crack at redrawing the boundaries is “proof of equity.”

Mackey said it’s proof of bipartisanship.

“At this level, party considerations should be set aside,” he said.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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