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Council considers health care for more employees

Friday, February 27, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Though the City of Austin offers health coverage to most of its regular employees, City Council has kick-started a process that could lead to an expansion to all employees in the next fiscal year.

Council voted Thursday to direct city staff to identify and categorize city employees who are not eligible to receive health coverage and estimate the projected costs to next year’s city budget of providing it to all employees, with the exception of contract employees.

All Council members voted in favor of the resolution, with the exception of Council Member Don Zimmerman, who abstained.

City spokesman Kyle Carvell told the Austin Monitor after the vote that as of Feb. 7, the city provides health coverage to 11,839 of 14,129 total employees. Only regular full-time employees — of which there are 11,905 — are eligible for health coverage. The city’s 123 regular part-time employees and 2,101 temporary employees are not eligible.

Council has directed staff to deliver the information to them within 60 days, after which the Audit and Finance Committee will consider the item and report back to the full Council.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who sponsored the resolution, said that she hopes the information will help Council consider a coverage expansion in its upcoming budget deliberations.

“The purpose of this resolution is to start the ball rolling on access to health coverage by all of our different types of city workers,” Kitchen said. “Affordability is a huge issue, and access to health care is a huge cost for families.”

The resolution also directs staff to break down costs by worker category, estimate the costs to the city associated with uninsured city workers and estimate the number of employees who get health coverage from a source not related to employment, such as a spouse or the Affordable Care Act.

Kitchen later told the Monitor that she is also working with Council Member Greg Casar to determine the potential costs of covering contract employees. “In some cases, the city may be contracting with another entity, but really the folks are working with the City of Austin on a pretty regular basis,” she said. “So we will also be looking into those types of situations.”

Kitchen added that she and Casar want to bring the contract employee issue forward so that Council can discuss it as part of the next budget cycle as well, though they do not have an exact date set. “What we’re going to do is get some more information and then decide if we need that resolution,” she said.

Overall, Kitchen explained, her goal is to determine which employees might be falling through the cracks. “I think it’s important for us to examine who we don’t cover, what the cost would be to cover them and whether or not they have other options,” she said.

Zimmerman said that if Council does expand coverage, he wants it to maintain a “revenue neutral policy.” He also asked if staff could “identify some positions that could be eliminated so the remaining people could be paid this health care without additional burdens to taxpayers.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair compared the resolution to one she sponsored earlier this month that directed staff to assess the potential financial impacts of implementing a 20 percent homestead exemption.

“We did end up asking the city manager to then identify where the money would come from,” Troxclair said. In the health coverage case, she added, “It might be helpful to know where we could make up that lost revenue.”

Ultimately, Council did not incorporate this question into the resolution.

Casar said that, compared to the homestead exemption proposal — which staff previously projected for the current fiscal year — Council is “still a few steps behind on this issue.”

“We don’t know … how much money we would even be asking the [city] manager to find,” Casar said.

Kitchen agreed that Council will have to consider whether it can afford to expand coverage. “The point that you’re raising is an important point to our overall budget discussion,” she said to Zimmerman. “The decisions on how we spend taxpayer dollars is a policy decision.

“I just wanted to get this on the table, because I think it’s an important piece for affordability,” Kitchen continued. “But we’ll have to weigh whether we extend the coverage — the cost of it — in light of the other priorities that we may have.”

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