Anyone employed by Martin County faces a “no-win” situation next year.

Employees lose because after choosing to work in low-paying positions — often for many years — in exchange for exceptional health insurance benefits, officials have lost their long-fought battle trying to provide the low-deductible, generous benefit health care package they’ve carried up until now.

And that’s simply because the county just doesn’t have the money to keep paying for the healthcare they’re all used to receiving.

So nobody wins, according to Mike Dant, president of the board of county commissioners, who, like his two fellow commissioners, became visibly frustrated by employee complaints regarding the new plan county officials hope the county can afford.

“When the state board of accounts comes down and says you have to cut $1.2 million out of your budget, what would you do?” asked John Collins, commissioner, at the regular bimonthly commissioners meeting that followed a special meeting last Tuesday announcing the board’s choice of Petersburg’s Doty Insurance Agency as the county’s new benefits broker.

And that decision only came after studying nine bids by insurance companies from Vincennes to Indianapolis, all vying for the lucrative commission paid on such large contracts. The lowest bid came from the Petersburg firm which suggested a joint plan that includes high deductible coverage for catastrophic medical needs coupled with health savings accounts for employees.

Once adopted, employees who now pay $15 per pay period or $30 a month for insurance would be responsible for the first $2,500 to $5,000 in medical expenses depending on whether they carry an individual or family plan. While other deductibles, ranging from $1,000 on up, are available, those were the amounts used during Tuesday night’s meeting.

“I took my kids to the doctor three times last week and paid $36 (in co-payments),” said one mother who works as a dispatcher at the Martin County Jail. “Under the new plan, I’d have paid nearly $200.”

And she just can’t afford it, she added, joined by a chorus of voices echoing agreement.

“For years and years we’ve promised if we didn’t get raises at least the insurance stays cheap,” said Jeff Sanders, another county employee. “I’m not mad at you three guys, but the three before you and the three before them who made the promises.”

The new plan works by joining two separate plans together, according to Cochren, who tried to answer questions about the plan but couldn’t help when it came to disappointment from employees now faced with low pay and high insurance costs.

The high deductible insurance plan pays 100 percent once the deductible amount — whether it’s $2,500/$5,000 or $1,000/$3,000 — has been paid out of the employee’s pocket. That’s where the Health Savings Accounts come in, Cochren said. Employees can deposit money in a separate, tax-favored account to pay the costs of the high deductible policy using money they haven’t had to pay income tax on. But whether the health savings account money is spent on prescriptions, doctor visits, dental hygiene, new eyeglasses or a hospital stay, once the money is spent, everything else is covered by the insurance company. If the best price comes from Pekin Insurers, employees would remain in the network of healthcare providers and facilities they now use.

So panicked employees, many of whom say they can’t afford to stash thousands of dollars in a separate bank account, begged the commissioners to revisit a traditional plan much like they’re used to. But the commissioners reminded them that the county is broke and has less money budgeted for healthcare in 2006 than in the previous two years.

Because in the last year, 42 percent of the county’s $3 million 2005 budget was gobbled up in health insurance premiums and costs, Cochren reminded the employees. In 2004, the county spent $419,000 for health care and insurance, and being partially self-insured, now spends roughly $27,500 per employee. If that amount is reduced to a few thousand dollars per worker to help employees start up their health savings account, the county will still be better off.

But commissioners don’t know if they can do even that. They do know the kind of insurance the employees had in the past can no longer be provided, especially when health insurance costs nationwide climb between 17 and 20 percent annually. The county’s current insurance provider, Central Benefits, won’t even offer the type of plan the county now has, with its partially self-insured segment. So come Dec. 31, the county’s insurance will be gone. That’s why settling on a policy and getting it in place is critical, said John Stoll, the only county council member to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

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