A change in insurance providers has some retired city of Chattanooga employees worried they're going to be cut off from their doctors, pharmacies and health care providers.
Retired city police officer Vince Dean — now the Hamilton County Criminal Court clerk — spoke for a group of retirees at the Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday.
The council voted in November to switch from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee to United Healthcare.
Now, Dean said, retirees can't get consistent answers whether their premiums and deductibles might rise, whether they'll get to keep doctors who have been treating them for years, and whether providers such as the Chattanooga Heart Institute will accept United Healthcare insurance.
He said some doctors have told retirees they don't accept United, and former workers who use the city wellness center on 11th Street were told the pharmacy there won't accept the plan either.
City staffers said enrollment for insurance starts Dec. 15.
Dean said retirees were promised their insurance benefits wouldn't change, but no retirees were at the table when the city administration was weighing provider proposals.
"We had no idea until after the resolution was already on the table," he said.
He asked the council to "take a bold stand" and halt the switch-over to United, now set for Jan. 1, "at least until we can get some consistent answers."
Some council members said they'd been contacted by worried former workers. Councilwoman Carol Berz quizzed City Attorney Wade Hinton, asking whether the contract had been signed or could be delayed.
"We were led to believe there would be no detriment and no change," Berz said. "I would have never voted for this if I thought that the providers, particularly the heart center, people's physicians that they've had for a while, that that would be in any way impaired."
Hinton and city staffers said no contract has been signed but there is a proposal and a letter of intent. He promised to research the legal issues.
Council members also questioned city staffers who worked on the insurance contract.
Human Resources Director Tina Camba apologized for the confusion and said there was no intention of misleading the council. She promised to get with the retirees and the insurance company and get some answers.
Most of the council members were emphatic that the retirees are to be protected, and while several said they believed the council and administration acted in good faith, there had at least been communications failures.
"This will not happen again," Councilman Russell Gilbert said pointedly to Camba.
Next time something comes up that affects retiree benefits, the administration had better give itself plenty of time to let those affected know about it, he told her.
Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod said the administration has "got to do a better job" of communicating with the council.
"I've only been here since April and this has happened again and again," she said. "... We're being forced to vote on things we shouldn't have voted for because we're not getting the information."
Stacy Richardson, Mayor Andy Berke's chief of staff, asked the council to let the staff work on all those issues and present answers at Tuesday's strategic planning session. The session is held at 1:30 p.m. in the council's conference room.
Among the dozen or so retirees in the audience was former Mayor Ron Littlefield, who said he's been unable to get consistent answers about UHC benefits too.
He supported a suggestion by retiree Randy Parker that the city extend its BlueCross contract for a year while the situation is straightened out. And this time, he added, retirees should have a voice.
"The retirees have gotten different answers to questions from every party who's involved," Littlefield said.
"It's a totally confused mess, and it didn't have to be."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.