published Friday, June 14th, 2013

Hamilton County may alter health insurance plan

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments on a portion of his budget to county commissioners in this file photo.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments on a portion of his budget to county commissioners in this file photo.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Hamilton County employees who've been getting "exceptional" health insurance benefits will have lesser policies next budget year if county commissioners pass Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed budget.

The policy change is a reaction to some upcoming elements of the Affordable Care Act and could save the county $1.8 million, Coppinger told commissioners Thursday as he presented his proposed 2014 budget.

Coppinger was pitching a proposed $664 million budget, up $21 million from this year, with no property tax increase. The proposed general fund is up $5 million, from $192 million last year to a proposed $197 million.

Once the federal health care law is in full effect, county employees hired before September 2006 -- about 75 percent of them -- who are under an older, cushier plan will be labeled as having "Cadillac policies" by federal officials, and the county would have to pay a penalty, Coppinger said.

Those employees will be moved into the co-insurance plan covering all other employees.

"In the past our insurance has been not just good but exceptional. This gets us in line with other businesses and industry. It's also still good insurance," Coppinger said.

County human resources officials could not say Thursday exactly how many employees would be affected. Constitutional officers hire their own employees, but the county insures them.

Alecia Poe, assistant human resources director, said employees will likely only notice a difference if they visit a hospital or have a serious or specialized medical procedure.

Going to the doctor for a cold will still cost them the $25 copay they are used to, Poe said. Specialist visits will cost them a $40 copay. But employees will have to meet a $1,000 deductible for hospital visits, then pay 20 percent of the cost beyond that under the co-insurance policy.

Under the federal law, all doctor visits for preventive care will be paid by tax dollars.

And the county's pharmacy plan would not change, Poe said.

Even with the insurance change, health care costs still are expected to increase by $3.7 million for the general fund.

Other big general fund expense increases include a $4.1 million debt service appropriation. Expenses like capital outlay, disability payouts and three new positions for the medical examiner's office are being mostly balanced by lowered appropriations to the sheriff's office, property assessor and savings in utility costs.

Another $3.1 million from the fund balance is being used to supplement revenue.

Revenue in the 2014 budget is expected to be flat and there will be an estimated 1 percent growth in property tax, which Coppinger said will amount to about $1.7 million.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said Thursday after the presentation the budget was " about as good as it gets" and said he expects the commission will pass it.

"Generally speaking, our departments, our allocations are in line with what we expected. ... I wish we could have given the employees a raise, but that obviously couldn't happen," Henry said.

Other commissioners thanked Coppinger for bringing a balanced budget that did not raise tax rates.

Commissioner Chester Bankston lamented the changes to health care, but said they likely were unavoidable.

"The one thing that we will get the most calls about is the change in our health care. Which, I wish we didn't have to do it, but we had to according to what's going to happen when Obamacare kicks in."

Commissioners will vote to approve or reject the proposed budget on June 27.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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