The Columbia County Board’s Human Resources Committee on Friday adjourned its meeting knowing only two things for sure about employee health insurance for 2018.
They knew that employees will no longer be covered by Group Health Trust. And they knew that the cost of coverage, for the county and for participating employees, would go up next year by no more than 7 percent.
Beyond that, a lot of questions need to be answered soon — so insurance costs can be incorporated into the 2018 budget, and so employees can be educated about coverage options available and issued new insurance cards.
In July, the HR committee voted to seek proposals for employee insurance coverage, less than a year after the county switched from Dean Care to GHT. Breanna Hellenbrand, account executive for the county’s insurance broker, M3, said ongoing problems with customer service had caused dissatisfaction with GHT.
Those problems have not been adequately resolved, said Columbia County Human Resources Director Joseph Ruf.
That’s why the HR Committee voted unanimously to authorize continued negotiations with M3 to find a carrier other than GHT.
The HR Committee expects to meet in special session before the County Board’s Oct. 18 meeting to decide on the carrier. The Oct. 18 meeting is when the proposed budget is to be presented to the County Board.
Last year, GHT agreed that if Columbia County were to renew its coverage for another year, the cost would not go up by more than 7 percent. That’s the percentage of increase that has been tentatively incorporated into the budget, Ruf said, and it’s possible that whatever company is chosen as the insurance provider will agree to a lower percentage increase.
After meeting with the committee in closed session Friday, Hellenbrand said she planned to talk to prospective insurance providers as soon as possible to finalize their proposals.
In 2012, Columbia County switched from GHT to Dean Care, but switched back to GHT this year, saving $336,125 in annual premium costs.
But cost is not the only issue, Ruf said. County employees covered by GHT reported problems getting timely and satisfactory answers to questions regarding their coverage, he said.
HR Committee Chairman Bruce Rashke of the town of Wyocena said he understands employees’ concerns about the current uncertainty regarding health insurance.
“This has been very difficult,” he said. “We recently had all our employees go for a change, and we’re asking them to do this again.”
One of the key concerns, Ruf said, is whether employees, under the new insurance, will be able to keep their current health care providers.
Ruf said the new insurance will not be a health-maintenance organization format, where costs are kept down by limiting providers. A key feature the county is seeking in an insurance carrier, he said, is coverage of providers statewide, not just in Columbia County — because many county employees live in other counties.
Committee member Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville acknowledged the need to look closely at the available options.
“I don’t think we should rush into this,” Pufahl said. “We rushed into it last time.”
The HR Committee authorized Ruf to seek a proposal from the Madison-based consulting firm Carlson-Dettmann — the firm that created the pay scale system governing how much most Columbia County employees are paid — to update its study of the labor market in and around Columbia County.
Ruf said the County Board’s Finance Committee, in preparing the 2018 budget, fielded numerous requests for higher pay for various existing jobs and creations of new positions, and was reluctant to address those questions without getting a “big-picture” look at how Columbia County’s wages stack up with those of the rest of the market.
For example, the county’s Solid Waste Department’s operation has changed in recent years, with the addition of a $1 million semi-automated recycling system, and the challenges of having enough workers to keep up with the demand for sorting and selling recyclable trash.
Also, he said, workers with commercial drivers’ licenses in the Solid Waste Department are being paid less than CDL holders who work for the county’s Highway and Transportation Department.
Ruf said there is money in this year’s budget, and will be money in next year’s budget, to cover the cost of the study, which he estimated at $10,000 to cover the pay scale used for most county employees, and another $2,400 to address the separate pay scale for the Columbia Health Care Center in Wyocena.
Although the study could start before this year is over, most of the work will likely be done in 2018, with the goal of incorporating the findings into the county’s 2019 budget, Ruf said.