Fresno County’s largest union has agreed to a proposal by Fresno County supervisors to add $50 per pay period for employees’ insurance to offset rate hikes.
Service Employees International Union, which represents about half of the county’s nearly 7,600 employees, voted for the contribution hike by a wide margin, a union official said.
The increased contribution costs the county about $9.1 million this year. The total cost to the county’s general fund is $1.6 million, and the remainder is coming from state and federal funds that support the bulk of county employees enrolled in the county’s insurance program.
Employees’ premiums have risen even as their wages went up, taking a larger-than expected bite out of their paychecks. Supervisors last year supported phasing-in 9 percent in added wages over two years, the same amount workers lost in 2011 due to budget cuts.
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But at the same time, employees have overused their health insurance plans with higher-than-normal trips to emergency rooms, creating double-digit premium increases.
Supervisors discussed the problem last month and were seeking ways to improve insurance contributions while weaning employees off unnecessary emergency room and other preventable high-cost medical visits.
The new rates and contributions go into effect in mid-December’s payroll if approved by the Board of Supervisors later this month.
Fresno County partners with Tulare County and other agencies in the San Joaquin Valley Insurance Authority. Premiums for authority members totaled $109.8 million in 2016. Beginning Jan.1, premium projections are 17.7 percent higher, or about $129.2 million. The authority covers about two dozen agencies. Fresno County is the largest with 5,550 employees enrolled. Tulare County is second-largest with about half that number.
We’ve got a long way to go if we want to be comparable.
Buddy Mendes, Fresno County Board of Supervisors’ chairman
To cover the higher premiums, employees would have to contribute 11.7 percent to 16 percent more, depending upon the plan. The rates for most employee-only plans increased about $51 per pay period. For most of those with families on their plans, rates went up $117 per pay period. Without the increased contribution from the county, employees would be on the hook to cover the higher premium costs.
Most employees with employee-only plans will pay about $740 to $770 per month. For employee and family, the rates will rise to between $1,700 and $1,800 per month. The county’s contribution to employees is $233 for employee-only plans and $333 for those with families, according to county documents. Fresno County ranks near the bottom in contributions to employees’ health insurance, even though the county raised its pay-period contribution $10 per employee in July.
Fresno County supervisors and County Administrator Jean Rousseau said that high employee insurance costs are harming recruitment efforts as potential applicants gravitate to other municipal jobs that have lower insurance premiums and higher employer contributions.
Fresno County is near the bottom in employee contributions compared with other local agencies. And even with increased contributions, a Fresno County survey shows the county remains behind many of the 11 communities in the comparison. The county ranks seventh in contributions for employee-only insurance, eighth for employee and spouse and 10th for employee and family.
County officials admit they have a long way to go in assisting workers with insurance costs, but they want to send a message showing they empathize with workers.
“We’re frustrated that as we are restoring salaries, that benefit increases are taking money out of employees’ pockets,” said Rousseau. “It’s important for our employees to know the board is extremely concerned about the increased impact of insurance rates on them.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Buddy Mendes said that $50 was all the county could afford for now.
“We’ve got a long way to go if we want to be comparable,” he said.
There was a little skepticism there, but once they understood it, the buy-in was definitely there.
Riley Talford, SEIU Local 521, Fresno County president
The money, Rousseau said, is one-time revenues from reserves that was proposed for use in county building projects, such as a new district attorney’s office or a sheriff’s substation.
The added contributions, said Riley Talford, president of Service Employees International Union Local 521 for Fresno County, were approved with overwhelming support from members.
“Our plan was to try to get the costs offset for the employee-only plans because it would have a trickle-down effect on other plans,” he said.
He said union members were encouraged, if not a little surprised, by the county’s efforts to buffer the financial effects of rate increases on employees.
“We had to do some explaining to the members,” Talford said. “There was a little skepticism there, but once they understood it, the buy-in was definitely there.”
Union and county officials are considering changes that could save money, such as an on-site clinic, an improved wellness program and a diabetes management program since 16 percent of employees listed it as a chronic condition.
County and union officials say other chronic concerns are: asthma, obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. Other issues cited were lower back problems, diet, digestive issues, stress, anxiety and depression. A major issue is the number of people going to emergency rooms for treatment, the most costly level of care.