The health insurance crisis facing Lexington's public employees and elected officials feels like a time-lapse photo in which a cute baby grows into a terrifying monster in the blink of an eye.
Except, in this case, city employees were being forced to absorb, in one enrollment period, the full burden of cost increases that other insurers have been shifting onto consumers for decades.
Sure, there had been warnings for almost a year of steep premium increases.
But someone who's gone for three years without a pay raise and is supporting a family on less than $30,000 a year, as many city workers are, could not realistically expect to come up with an extra $6,000 or $7,000 a year to pay for health care.
No wonder they howled.
Lexington cannot afford to stay on the same steep health care cost trajectory it's been on. But city workers also couldn't afford the premium increases first proposed by Mayor Jim Gray.
So Gray and the council wisely softened the shock by agreeing to put an extra $3.8 million in city money, spread over two fiscal years, into covering employees, their families and retirees in 2012.
How the city will come up with that much money in a budget that's already lean, and which services might have to be reduced to pay for it, are still to be decided.
Even with the extra help, the new out-of-pocket costs for employees will be burdensome, but perhaps not as bad as many fear.
The city is self-insured, meaning that taxpayers and the 6,400 participants pay the actual total health care costs — $33 million this year — of those in the plan.
Eighty-nine percent of the participants are enrolled in the Platinum Plan which provided a very high level of coverage and charged no deductibles at a cost to an individual of $4,272 a year.
Yet 65 percent of the city's employees consumed less than $1,000 worth of health care last year. So a lot of people were paying for more coverage than they needed and will be happy in the new, cheaper plans.
Also, several extremely expensive cases in recent years pushed up the cost for all. There won't likely be a repeat, and if there is, the city now will have reinsurance to cover the catastrophic costs.
Also, the city is launching an aggressive wellness plan focused on prevention and holding down the cost of routine care.
The imposition of co-pays and deductibles will decrease utilization which will also hold down costs for all.
We'd bet that almost everyone who listened to the emotional pleas from city employees could relate to the desperation they felt at the prospect of losing access to affordable health care.
Their pleas remind us of the millions who have no health coverage in this country and the high cost to everyone of a system that's geared to treating sickness rather than keeping people healthy.
Finally, this crisis didn't develop in the blink of an eye, even if it felt like it. It's worth getting to the bottom of how it did develop.
How could the city's health care costs have escalated so dramatically and how was money shifted within recent city budgets to pay the escalating costs without the council becoming aware?
It's worth figuring out to make sure nothing like it happens again.