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County health insurance rates to rise for first time in four years

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

Travis County will dish out about $4.5 million more to cover health insurance costs next year under the final plan the commissioners court approved Tuesday.


A preliminary projection for 2011 puts total health claims costs at about $47 million.


To help pay for the increase, employee and retiree premiums will go up 8 percent in 2011, boosting monthly costs by between $2 and $93, depending on which plan they select.


It’s the first time in four years that health insurance rates will rise, said Cindy Purinton, the county’s benefits administrator. However, she noted, rates won’t go up for about 40 percent of the county’s 5,300 covered employees.


The increase would have been much higher — 14 percent for employees and retirees, and a slightly higher percentage for the county — had Purinton and members of a benefits committee comprised of employees not worked to shave costs.


“Faced with the fact that rates were going to go up no matter what, they went over every scenario you could imagine,” County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt told In Fact Daily.


The county has a “self-funded” insurance plan, which gives officials more leeway to decide which benefits to offer participants, but the county also assumes more risk than it would if it had a “fully insured” plan under which an insurance company assumed the risk.


Among the cost-saving measures they came up with are higher co-pays and deductibles and the elimination of Nexium, an acid-reflux medication, from pharmacy coverage. Last year, the county spent $300,000 on that prescription drug alone.


“We have been monitoring this drug for a couple of years, and the costs are very high for a drug that has many other, less-expensive alternative drugs that could be used, both prescription and over-the-counter,” Purinton wrote in an e-mail prior to the meeting.


Purinton held 15 information sessions in the past couple of months to explain the situation and outline the changes. She said few people spoke at an employee hearing about the proposed plan last week. Also, there was little discussion about the increases at Tuesday’s meeting because commissioners had tentatively approved the changes in April so county staff members could take the proposal to employees for feedback.

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