Finance Committee Feb. 1, 2018

Polk County retiree Sandra Galloway wanted to know why her health coverage was changed along with others during the latest Finance Committee meeting. (Kevin Myrick/SJ)

When a employee retires from service with Polk County or any other local government, they are made promises. A certain amount of county funds is set aside to cover the cost of paying for the monthly check retirees get to live off of, for instance, along with other benefits they had while still in the county’s employ like health insurance.

Changes made to a certain group of retirees medical insurance is now costing at least one of those people more when they visit the doctor as she deals with her own health issues.

Sandra Galloway told members of Polk County’s finance committee that she didn’t want to have to “cause a stink” over the change in coverage, but the move of her coverage after retirement from Blue Cross-Blue Shield to Humana has ended up forcing her to pay more out of pocket for insurance than she was previously. Before the change when she was going through serious health issues and having to visit specialists several years ago, she said that the combination of Medicare and the supplemental insurance provided by the county covered her 100 percent.

“Basically after I paid my deductible, it was paid 100 percent,” she said. “I didn’t have to get up any money to pay a doctor or a specialist. It was taken care of.”

Then the change happened and 10 retirees were switched to Humana, which Galloway explained was Medicare A or B. She’s had to pay now out of pocket for visits, which she said has depended on “where you go and what you have done.”

Galloway was in front of the finance committee seeking answers to why she and the 10 others were placed in the pool, and why the rest of the county workforce hadn’t been.

Additionally Sheriff’s deputy Mike Sullivan spoke before the committee as well, wanting to know if county employees who are getting close to retirement were facing the same difficulties with their insurance coverage once they decide their time is up. He said a lot of employees nearing retirement aren’t happy to hear what happened to Galloway, but are willing to give the county time to resolve the problem. Ultimately, they just want the county to keep up their end of the retirement bargain by covering insurance costs.

“Being promised something for 27 years is a lot of the reason people are still working here,” he said. “We’re one of the lowest paid counties around here… the biggest benefit was keeping group insurance and paying the premium.”

County Manager did have some answers as to how this became a problem. He said originally when they moved Galloway and others into their current insurance plan with Humana, they were under the belief that by creating and starting a group of 10, they were seeking a lower-cost option to Blue Cross-Blue Shield’s supplemental insurance coverage with the same product. Instead, what they got was a group Medicare Advantage plan, which has completely different sets of rules for what it will cover for patients and associated costs to those seeking care.

For instance, a traditional medicare supplemental insurance package lets a patient like Galloway use whatever doctor she needs to for care, while the Medicare Advantage plans only allow for in-network use of healthcare providers. And depending on the level of coverage, a patient might or might not have to add a co-payment to see physicians or specialists.

Galloway and Sullivan, along with other employees who couldn’t make it to the committee meeting, are being promised swift action to fix the problem by Commissioner Scotty Tillery, the committee’s chair.

Tillery said that “the good thing is that we’re going to have something to look at moving forward,” as the county waits to hear back from insurance broker Shaw Hankins on the cost of moving the retirees back to a supplemental plan, likely increasing the cost from $40,000 to $54,000 a year in costs to the county and ultimately taxpayers. Until exact figures can be reported back, Commissioners asked for Galloway, Sullivan and others to remain patient, likely expecting more information in the coming weeks and potentially a decision in March.

What will complicate the issue, Denton pointed out, is whether the county can make changes to health insurance coverage after the annual period allowing for updates to health insurance plans will be allowed after the start of a new calendar year.

Galloway said she understood that insurance coverage costs continues to grow, and that plans change. She mainly just wants the county to keep up their end of the bargain for retirees, a group that could grow in the coming years as commissioners look at preliminary cost estimates for changing the retirement requirements.

Denton provided the committee with an opening round of figures on how much over the coming years it would cost or save the county in various ways for changing the retirement rules, which currently require that an employee be at least 65, and have at least 20 years of service before retiring.

The new idea is to change to the 80-rule, already in use with many municipalities across the state as an incentive at the end of a career for staying with local governments as long term employees. Essentially, the change would mean that if an employee has a certain number of years of service and their age adding up to the magic number 80, they’ll be eligible for retirement.

So for instance, if a Polk County Police Officer began his career in his early 20s, he could put in more than 30 years of service and retire in his early 50s instead of having to wait until reaching 65.

Tillery argued that not only is it a benefit for long term workers staying on, but also is a safety issue for law enforcement and other high-stress or physical work in the county, like 911 dispatchers and public works crewmembers.

However, committee members wanted more solid figures before they move it up for a broader discussion with the whole board, since it would likely add some additional costs initially to the county in retirement premium payouts and for health care costs, but overall would likely save money in the long term on salary requirements.