Commissioners vote to keep benefits, change insurance administrator
by PHILLIP WILLIAMS
Sep 05, 2013 | 1478 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In a sometimes heated 3 1/2-hour meeting, Upshur County Commissoners Court in separate 3-1 votes Friday retained current medical benefits for county employees, but changed the third-party administrator on the county’s health insurance plan to The R. Brown Co. of Gilmer, which filed a joint proposal with HealthFirst.

However, the court by informal consensus agreed to reduce its match for employee retirement from the current 2-1 to 1-1 in the new budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, and not grant an across-the-board pay raise. The court is scheduled to approve the budget and tax rate next Tuesday during a 9 a.m. meeting after a public hearing that day.

County Judge Dean Fowler told The Mirror Tuesday the court will be considering raising the tax rate from the current 51.22 cents per $100 valuation to 52.223 cents. The 52.223-cent rate is the “effective tax rate,” the amount needed to generate the same amount of tax revenue as during the current fiscal year, he said.

And Friday’s vote on medical benefits means workers will face no increases in their $500 deductibles nor doctor visit co-pays. The court had discussed instituting such cuts in the face of the county’s fiscal problems, but some persons on the county payroll had indicated objections.

Pct. 1 Comm. Paula Gentry, who made the motion to continue current benefits, joined Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka and Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer in approving it.

Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner, who opposed it, said after the meeting he had wanted to lower costs by such means as raising the deductible and co-pays in order to free up funds for possible pay raises, infrastructure, and reserve monies.

Before that vote, the court switched to Brown from its longtime third-party administrator, Group and Pension Administrators of Dallas, after Roy Brown of The R. Brown Co. told the court that if the two firms’ bids were close, “They’re a hundred miles away if you’ve got a problem. We’re a hundred yards away if you’ve got a problem.”

Berka, Spencer and Hefner voted for the change while Mrs. Gentry opposed it. She told The Mirror she did so because she did not know what changes were coming under what is known as “Obamacare,” nor “how that would affect us,” so “sometimes, switching in the middle of unbeknownst cannot be good.”

During the discussion of medical benefits, Spencer initially moved to raise the doctor visit co-pay from $25 to $35, the $500 deductible to $750, and to pay for only one dental cleaning a year instead of the current two. Later in the discussion, he changed his mind and said he favored leaving the benefits intact.

Mrs. Gentry asked if the court was making changes due to the nearly $1 million budget shortfall discovered a few months ago, and Hefner replied yes. “We’re almost there,” he added, saying that raising the deductible to $750 would save about $35,000.

But Mrs. Gentry replied she had needed an MRI medical test for more than a year, and couldn’t afford the current $500 deductible.

When Hefner said the county had been budgeting $1,795,000 yearly for health insurance, Mrs. Gentry replied it found money “by changing insurance companies.”

At that point, Berka said, “I don’t want to do anything with the medical (benefits).” He said those affected all county workers, but the retirement benefits only affected 25 percent, and that his plan to reduce them would save $330,000.

Health benefits attract and retain employees, but the retirement pension “is not an attractive idea” when only 25 percent utilize it, Berka added.

Said Fowler, “I don’t want to change our health care,” but emphasized that its cost :”is the problem” for the county financially.

“I’m not for doing both (cutting health care benefits and retirement benefits) today because the (budget) numbers are starting to look fairly good,” the judge added.

Mrs. Gentry advocated educating workers on using health care benefits. She said they had passed up using the “Tell-A-Doc” telephone consultation with a physician, which would cost $38 for a sinus infection when an in-person doctor visit costs $110.

Roy Brown offered to come in and explain benefits,saying people sometimes “misuse health care.” Then Pct. 1 Constable Gene Dolle said he believed Brown would save money, so the court should leave the retirement benefit intact. OK THRU HERE

During the discussion on the third-party administrator, which involved numerous questions from commissioners, Matt McKuen of Group and Pension Administrators said his firm’s policy of paying “cost-plus” had been effective, cutting the county’s costs 25 percent last year.

He said the bid from Brown and HealthFirst (a subsidiary of the East Texas Medical Center system), was undoubtedly “competitive,” but “I think personally your costs are gonna go up” under it. Every year the county has been with GPA, Upshur has come in well below its maximum liability, he said.

However, Kevin Hall of HealthFirst said ETMC (which owns the Gilmer hospital) has much higher discounts than the ones from the two Longview hospitals that McKuen quoted. Hall said his plan works “as effectively,” if not more so, than the one the county had.

McKuen’s rebuttal was that a direct contract with Good Shepherd Medical Center of Longview would cost the county money.

When Constable Dolle asked if the county was advocating that workers must use a certain hospital, Fowler said no.

Fowler then bluntly told Hall, “We did business with you for many, many years, and it was not a good experience.” Hall replied that HealthFirst is a different company than it was nine years ago, and that some of its personnel had left.

After Brown pointed out how much closer his firm is to the courthouse than GPA, Berka said that if the county changed to Brown and workers were unhappy, the court could change administrators again next year.

“I promise you we have spent hours trying to get input,” Berka added. “My bottom line recommendation is, we save the money up front” by going with Brown.

During the vote, Spencer hesitated, saying he needed more information to make a decision. When Fowler said the court had to decide the matter that day, Spencer voted to use Brown/HealthFirst.

During the discussion on retirement benefits, Berka said the county did “plug the hole in the boat and keep it from sinking” financially, but that he was becoming “more nervous” about the idea of giving raises. The court had just by consensus agreed to budget $100,000 for required upgrading of its computer system, and Berka asked Fowler, “We’ve just wiped out all our surplus, right?”

Yes, Fowler replied.

Berka then said the county could cut $1,083,000 of unfunded liability the first year if it would reduce the retirement plan from a seven percent employee contribution to four percent, and the county’s match from the current 2-1 to 1-1.

He said his plan also put $331,000 in the budget which could be used for raises of $900-1,200 per employee.

But Constable Dolle protested that the 25 percent of workers that would affect are the “most productive,” and asked why the cut should be taken out on them.. He said adding one or two cents to the tax rate would take care of the issue.

Berka said a 1-cent hike would only raise $160,000. As the discussion continued, Fowler at one point angrily scolded Dolle, “Constable! Stop talking over me, you understand?,” leading Dolle to repeatedly apologize.

Dolle said the retirement plan was the “safest way for me to save money,” but Berka said “75 percent of the people (on the county payroll) don’t participate” in it.

After one worker complained that cutting the retirement match to 1-1 would take $1,800 from his pocket, Fowler said “I disagree retirement is a problem. . .Our health insurance is way out of whack, compared to everybody else’s.”

But he added that employees had been saying they would rather alter their retirement than the health benefits.

Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Eric McGee advocated leaving the employee contribution at seven percent and said he had not been asked for his opinion on the issue--nor, to his knowledge, had anyone in his department, he said.

But Road and Bridge Administrator Andy Jordan said that “the (potential change in) insurance was the biggest scare” to workers, so if the court was “going to fiddle with anything, fiddle with the retirement.”

The court indicated it might grant Jordan’s road and bridge workers a raise in the new budget because he cut his overall budget and they are among the lowest-paid county employees.

As the discussion of retirement continued, Mrs. Gentry said she was not for reducing the match from 1-1 and the contribution from seven to four percent. Finally, except for Berka, the court agreed only to reduce the match and not the employee contribution.

In other action Friday, the court designated polling places for election day for the Nov. 5 elections on the Gilmer ISD bond issue and nine proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.

During the discussion on computer software bids, the court did not choose which it would accept, but the discussion began bringing into public the strained relationship between Sheriff Anthony Betterton and some commissioners..

Betterton asked why the court was putting $100,000 into contingency for the computer matter with retirement at issue, and urged the court use that money “to offset the retirement system.”

Mrs. Gentry and he began arguing, with her saying firmly, “You never came to any meeting (about the computer matter), and I personally asked you to come.” He then accused her of making an incorrect statement to him about a matter, and they disagreed on what was said in a phone conversation between them.

Then Hefner told the Sheriff, “We asked for your input. . .you would not give it.” Betterton replied he was giving it now.

Later in the discussion on retirement, Hefner told Betterton he had tried to visit with the Sheriff, who wouldn’t agree to. Betterton said he would refuse to discuss certain issues, such as the cost of jail food, with Hefner, but “as long as we’re discussing the facts. . .if you want to bury the hatchet, let’s bury the hatchet.”

The court also approved arrangements for early voting in the amendment election, but Gilmer ISD will handle the early voting for the $36.2 million bond issue election, details of which are expected to be announced this week.

The election day polling places include one in each commissioner’s precinct--the Assembly of God and Upshur County Library (both in Gilmer), Glenwood and Pritchett.

Hefner, whose precinct includes Ore City, said he wanted his precinct’s box at the Assembly of God because the bond issue involves Gilmer Schools. Upshur County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Miles Jr. then urged the court consider an additional voting box in Diana or Ore City for elderly voters.

When Fowler replied that only 1,700 people in the county vote in amendment elections, Miles said the court couldn’t justify not having the additional box for that reason because the public still needed convenience. Fowler then pointed out that by law, the county must have the same number of voting boxes in each precinct.

The court also approved holding early voting on the amendments at the courthouse on business days from Oct. 21-Nov. 1. Hours will be 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Among other actions, the court in other business Friday:

• Doubled the Records Management and Preservation filing fee to $10, and doubled the Records Archive fee to $10.

• Raised the District Clerk’s Archive Fund Fee to $10.

• Approved an approximately $10,000 settlement with former Road and Bridge Dept. employee Earnest Hoye in a federal lawsuit he filed against the county. “Our insurance company and our lawyers have made this decision for us,” Fowler told commissioners.

• Approved advertising for bids on surplus tires.

• Took no action on the proposed purchase of shelving for the Records Management Building. Fowler said “let us get some pricing” and that the court would consider the matter Sept. 16.

• Approved numerous routine matters ranging from budget amendments to paying bills.

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