City employees aren't happy about health premium increase

Head of worker group furious over doubling of costs

bfortune@herald-leader.comOctober 20, 2011 

Pam Brandenburg, president of Lexington's Civil Servant Employee Association, reacted angrily on Wednesday to the city's new health insurance plan that almost doubles premiums for the popular Platinum plan in which 89 percent of employees are enrolled.

"This is NOT acceptable," Brandenburg said in an email sent Wednesday to Mayor Jim Gray and members of the Urban County Council. "You are, in essence, raping the employees, especially those of us who haven't had a raise in 6 years."

The plan was unveiled at the council work session on Tuesday.

Premiums for the Platinum plan will increase for a single employee from $356 this year to $633 beginning Jan. 1. Families will see their premiums increase from $745 a month to $1,330.

Each employee gets a "pool" of money from the city to put toward their health insurance or other benefits each month. Non-union employees get $356 a month to use to offset the cost. Employees in the police, fire and corrections bargaining units get more.

Brandenburg described reaction from city employees as "irate." The CSEA represents about 600 of the city's 2,400 employees.

In a telephone interview, she said an employee protest is being planned for the Oct. 27 council meeting.

In her email to the mayor and council members, Brandenburg said, "You can bet that not one of you, if the employees can help it, will be sitting in the seats they have come next election."

Not all employees agreed with Brandenburg's tactics. "We all need to seek answers so we can better understand our options," said council clerk Susan Lamb. "Until we get our answers, we shouldn't jump to conclusions."

Lamb also took exception to Brandenburg seeming to speak for all Urban County Government employees. "My response, respectfully, to Ms. Brandenberg's email to the mayor is — that is not an accurate opinion of all LFUCG employees."

Daniel Fischer, an administrative specialist in Human Resources, also was taking a cautious approach. "We're getting packets of information on Friday. I'll look at the different plans and compare costs." Of the increase in costs, Fischer said, "It is what it is. I feel lucky to have a job."

An overhaul of the city's health plan was triggered by mounting deficits and declining city revenues. This year the city will spend about $33 million on employees, their dependents and retirees.

That's $14 million more than premiums collected, Briggs Cochran, president of Benefit Insurance Marketing, reported to the council on Tuesday. His firm was hired by the city to find ways of holding down health care costs and provide quality care.

For several years the city was able to cover shortfalls. But in the slumping economy, with the city cutting costs in every department, Gray has said for several months that shortfalls in the health-insurance budget could not continue.

With the new plan, the city will contribute $16 million toward health care premiums in 2012; the remaining costs will be picked up by employee premiums. Employees can choose among five plans.

Under the current, city-subsidized plan, most employees pay no deductibles, and premiums are low.

City officials say that employees have not been exposed to the true costs of health services until now.

Chris Bartley, president of The Lexington Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 526, also sent Gray and council members an email on Wednesday. "Every single employee should be insulted ... after the health insurance presentation," he wrote. Doubling the cost of premiums is "outrageous and will cause financial hardship to members."

The city is opening a wellness center in early 2012 to offer primary care services, with an emphasis on wellness and disease prevention. Employees can use the wellness center at no expense, which the city says will help off-set the increased health care costs.

Bartley said the cost to equip and staff the center for three years — about $3 million — would be better spent "to cut the cost of health care."

The city's health care consultants say when employees are healthier, companies — in this case the city — reduce health care costs. Data from Marathon Health, hired to run the wellness center, indicates that employees will save $32 a month, on average, by seeking medical care at the wellness center and having prescriptions filled at the new on-site pharmacy.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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