City of Chattanooga reverses course on retiree health insurance after outcry

City of Chattanooga reverses course on retiree health insurance after outcry

December 12th, 2017 by Staff Report in Breaking News

The Chattanooga headquarters of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is shown in an aerial view.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

After fending off a provider switch they feared would cost them access to doctors and specialists, some city retirees say they want to be included the next time Chattanooga starts negotiating for their health insurance coverage.

The Chattanooga City Council was supposed to vote Tuesday night on a one-year contract with United Healthcare to cover Medicare-eligible former workers starting Jan. 1.

But in recent weeks, word started circulating among the retirees that United wasn't going to cover some of their longtime doctors, the pharmacies they use, or their access to the Chattanooga Heart Institute.

A group of them came to the Dec. 5 council meeting demanding answers. They were there again at Tuesday's council planning session, where Human Resources Director Tina Camba confirmed the Heart Institute would not be a United provider.

A few former workers told of tangles they ran into trying to get enrolled — or to avoid enrolling — with United. Former dispatcher and juvenile justice worker Margaret Chastain said she wanted to keep her BlueCross plan, but after Human Resources told her to call United she was told she'd already been signed up with the new company.

Steve Jones, a retired city police officer, said he called United and found he and his wife were enrolled in a plan that's not even in Chattanooga.

"I don't know where it was," he said.

The resolution to go with United was struck and the council voted to extend its contract with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee for a year. Retirees will pay about $10 or $18 a month more than under United, depending on which of two plans they choose.

Camba said United and BlueCross will work together to make sure anyone who's been pre-enrolled in United will be switched over to BlueCross. She said her staff will work one-on-one to address concerns and ask questions.

Councilman Chip Henderson and some of the retirees who packed the chairs at the planning session said they want to be included the next time the question of their benefits comes up. Some council members said last week they felt they had been given too little information about the insurance purchase by city administration.

Bonnie Woodward, director of purchasing, and Stacy Richardson, chief of staff for Mayor Andy Berke, said the process now is for an evaluation committee of city staff to review and score proposals and present the highest-scoring one to the council for a vote. There isn't a place on the committee for nonstaffers, they said, although some kind of advisory panel could be formed for retirees to have input.

That didn't suit former city police officer Vince Dean, who now is Hamilton County Criminal Court clerk.

Dean asked the city staffers whether that committee provides recommendations to the city council.

They give the name of the top-scoring vendor to the council for a vote, Richardson said.

Well, under Tennessee law, "any committee that makes recommendations to the governing body" is subject to the state's Open Meetings Law, meaning the public should have access, Dean said.

"Something for you to do homework on," he said to City Attorney Wade Hinton.

At the voting session Tuesday night, Henderson, Councilman Ken Smith and Chairman Jerry Mitchell thanked the retirees for discovering the glitch, and the city staff and administration for working hard to fix it.

"Last week we found out what we were about to do in approving an insurer would not have provided the necessary coverage for many of our retirees," Smith said. "It was due to their diligence in bringing it to our attention that allowed us to make a correction."

Mitchell said, "I would like to add my thanks to the administration, who, when this was discovered, thanks to you all's due diligence, went to work hard last week and this week and brought us something that hopefully everybody can live with and be happier about."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.


This story was updated Dec. 12 at 11:02 p.m. with more information.