More than 100 Mobile County employees gathered in the auditorium at Government Plaza Thursday evening to discuss the details of the new health insurance program the county adopted for retired and active personnel in April. Commission President Connie Hudson began the discussion by saying the program was implemented because of concerns the county had about the long-term sustainability of the county’s old “self insured” program.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama is the provider of both plans, but the move to the current policy is expected to save the county $2 million a year.
Though the premiums for some polices went down, many county employees – especially those with pre-existing health problems – say they are struggling to pay the costs of prescriptions under the new plan.
In the new plan, copay for prescriptions are actually less for generic medicines. There’s currently a $5 copay, which is half of what generics cost under the previous plan.
However, many employees voiced concerns over not being able to get generic versions of the medicines they need on a regular basis.
Donna Jones, the county’s director of general services, spoke at the opening of the meeting to address some frequently asked questions and review some of the plan’s specifics.
She said there is several resources employees can take advantage of to help offset the cost of name brand medicine including claims for reimbursement through the insurance provider.
After meeting a $200 major medical calendar year deductible, employees will be reimbursed for 80 percent of their name brand prescription costs.
There also coupons and prescription assistance programs available to county employees. Information on those resources was also given to each employee who attended the meeting.
“I know many of you have never had to do these things, but neither have I,” Jones said. “We’re all going to have to take a more active role in our own healthcare.”
Even with the discounts, some employees claimed they are having a hard time paying for medicines that were previously affordable.
Richard Clayton, of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, said he’s collected more than 160 complaints about the new insurance policy.
“Some employees are having to chose between household bills and drugs, and unhealthy employees can’t work,” Clayton said. “There many areas the county could cut the budget, instead of balancing it on the backs of its employees.”
Clayton, like many employees in attendance, said the costly insurance is compounding the problem of county wages that are already stagnant.
The last pay raise for county employees was approved in 2007, and Clayton said without salaries adjusted for the rising cost of living, the new insurance coverage is “equal to a deep pay cut” for county employees.
Paul Burch, who also works with the sheriff’s office, told the commissioners he has employees whose salary is less than the cost of their monthly prescriptions.
“The insurance payments are almost half of most retirees checks,” Burch said. “I don’t know one that I used to work with who hasn’t had to take on another job.”
Burch also said poor wages and bad benefits are affecting the ability of the sheriff’s office to keep and recruit employees. According to Burch, there are currently 13 vacancies on the force — something he called unsafe for active offices and the general public.
Pat Pile, who retired from the sheriff’s office in 2001, said even the old insurance plan was “bad,” but called the new policy worse. He also said the problem started as far back as the1980s.
“The prior county commissioners made promises to the employees, and we gave up raises in order to keep our health insurance,” Pile said. “When my health insurance this year surpassed my mortgage, I knew something went wrong.”
Sgt. Phillip Mayo said even if prescription discount plans and reimbursements are available, it shouldn’t be the county employees’ responsibility to figure out how to make their health insurance affordable.
“It seems like the (salary and insurance coverage) cuts have been to produce pet projects and giveaways at our expense,” he said. “Our insurance paying plan has been polluted with promises coupons.”
Supporting several members of his department who were in attendance, Sheriff Sam Cochran spoke before the commission asking them to act quickly to help their employees.
“This government just needs to rethink its priorities and do more for employees because they’re suffering and we’re losing them,” Cochran said. “We’ve gone from $54 for family coverage in 2008 to $218 today. We should be able to draw from the considerable savings made and maybe pay some of the these deductibles for employees or something.”
Cochran said the way the insurance changes came about has been as much of a frustration for employees as the change itself.
He said other programs allow several months for employees to get health and fitness tests, but Blue Cross and Blue Shield gave Mobile County only 60 days.
“You can’t do that much in that short period of time,” he said. “I thought that was a pretty damn hard bargain to drive down on our employees.”
The commissioners didn’t directly respond to the comments made, but during her closing comments Hudson said the county was in the process of working on next year’s budget. She also said the employee’s concerns “had been heard.”
The crowd reacted unfavorably to those remarks and many begin yelling things from the audience. Finally, Hudson responded saying, “We all have a hard job.”
“Do you think it’s easy to make decisions that you know are going to affect people’s lives?” she asked the crowd. “Do you think we’re the type of people who don’t care?”
Commissioners Jerry Carl and Merceria Ludgood had no comment and the meeting was adjourned.