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VOL. 129 | NO. 214 | Monday, November 3, 2014

City, County Take Different Paths on Insurance

By Bill Dries

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City of Memphis human resources director Quintin Robinson came from City Hall on the other side of the Main Street Mall last week to watch how Shelby County government handled changes to its health insurance plan for employees.


And what he saw at the Thursday, Oct. 30, special meeting of the Shelby County Commission was much different than the city’s handling of its health insurance changes.

The nature of the changes for each government are different, but the issues are common and will be back in future years.

Consultants to the city have said its health insurance liability, like its more publicized unfunded pension liability, is unsustainable.

The county’s condition isn’t that dire. But since April, when the administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell took its first look on the way to the November enrollment period, the county’s health care costs grew by $11 million because of increased costs, including a spike in claims.

Both administrations – city and county – proposed dropping working spouses from coverage on their plans.

Memphis City Council members approved in June the changes proposed by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. with some changes to the plan. Wharton later made changes that keep working spouses on the city’s health insurance.

Shelby County Commissioners approved the changes Thursday, Oct. 30, that raise employee premiums by 5 percent and drop working spouses whose employers offer coverage equivalent to the county’s bronze plan effective Jan. 1.

Commissioners approved an amendment by commissioner Willie Brooks that requires the administration to submit an annual report on health insurance claims, expenses and projections as well as actual figures from the county’s health insurance fund.

The special meeting was set after commissioners delayed votes on the separate parts of the plan at their regular Monday meeting.

In the interim, leaders of unions representing county employees met with the county administration and had contacted their international and national union leaders about help in coming up with alternatives.

The union leaders sought a delay of Thursday’s vote to develop the alternatives. Commissioner Walter Bailey proposed a one-week delay, but the commission voted it down.

Commissioners voting against the delay cited the start of the county’s annual open enrollment period next week for health insurance coverage as well as open enrollment periods underway at other employers.

Spouses of county employees – as well as county employees themselves – are making decisions about whether to join those plans or stay on the county plan.

The union leaders representing county employees expressed their problems with the plan this month, asking for more time at Thursday’s special session and saying they were surprised by the details of the $11 million fix.

“This is an annual process,” said deputy chief administrative officer Kim Hackney. “We don’t get together and negotiate benefits with unions.”

Most on the commission agreed with that stand, several saying they did not want to see the commission interfere with the relationship between the unions and the administration.

Even Bailey put much of the onus for the 11th-hour attempt on the unions.

“Why’d you wait so late to step forward?” he asked union leaders, adding that he was “disappointed” they hadn’t mobilized national and international union leadership to get an alternative plan quicker.

As the council approved the city health insurance change, municipal union leaders representing city workers quickly began talking with actuaries and crafting several alternative plans. Wharton’s administration never drew the kind of line Luttrell’s administration did. The union leaders are currently at the table with the council and administration with alternative scenarios on the pension fix the council has yet to vote on.

Wharton has maintained since the summer that his administration has its preferences but is willing to look at alternative proposals from the unions. And a lot more than alternative plans have come through the doors of City Hall since the spring budget season.

Since before its June vote on the changes, dozens of city employees and retirees, mainly police and firefighters, have berated the council and mayor, filled the committee room on the twice-monthly council days at City Hall and stayed around until the end of the council session to make their displeasure known.

The difference doesn’t mean the county commission is of one mind on an issue that is certain to present more challenges – or any other issue, for that matter.

The health insurance vote came the same week that seven commissioners filed a lawsuit in Shelby County Chancery Court against chairman Justin Ford over Ford’s refusal to put a proposed change in the commission’s procedures on the agenda even for discussion.

The votes on the two resolutions that constitute all of the changes were 9-3 in each case, with Ford and commissioners Eddie Jones and Terry Roland voting no.

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