Garfield County public sector braces for new health insurance costs
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — While the federal Affordable Care Act will not directly affect self-insured pools of local government, public school and special district employees, rate structures under the state health insurance exchange system could set a new baseline for the public-sector workforce as well.
Some of the largest employers in Garfield County include the county government itself, local school districts, Colorado Mountain College and the city of Glenwood Springs. All provide health insurance to their employees through the Colorado Employee Benefit Trust (CEBT).
As with private-sector group plans, health insurance costs in the public sector have been increasing anywhere from 8 percent to 15 percent per year in recent years along with the rising cost of health care.
Whether that rate of increase will slow, stay the same, or perhaps go up even more, remains to be seen, as new insurance rate structures are being rolled out Oct. 1 under Obamacare.
“We don’t have a good sense of what that’s going to cost us at this point,” said Shannon Pelland, chief financial officer for the Roaring Fork School District Re-1. “We are having some underwriting analysis done to help us determine those costs.”
As with state of Colorado and some other public-sector employers, school districts operate on a July-to-June fiscal-year cycle, so their insurance election period is not until the spring.
Roaring Fork Re-1, which includes Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, has about 850 employees. Of those, around 600 are enrolled in the district’s health benefits plan, Pelland said.
With the rising cost of health insurance over the past five years, prior to the implementation of Obamacare, the district has been forced to reduce its health benefits in an effort to control costs and keep insurance affordable for teachers and other district employees, Pelland said.
“We had to drop our best plan, because we were looking at an increase of 15 to 18 percent,” Pelland said.
Still, very few school district employees choose to extend their coverage to family members, because it’s too expensive, she said.
Currently, a “moderate rate” plan covering a typical family carries a monthly premium of $1,553 per month, a result of the high health care costs in the region, Pelland said.
The district pays slightly less than 50 percent of that amount, which cuts into the amount of pay it can offer teachers and other staff.
That, in turn, impacts the district’s ability to hire and retain employees.
“It’s painful, because there’s a difference in what we can pay our employees, because so much of what we can offer goes to health benefits,” Pelland said.
It likely won’t help that Garfield County is included in the resort region under the state’s new zoned insurance rate system, because of the high cost of health care in this area compared to the rest of the state.
Long-term, the idea is that health care costs will decrease under Obamacare, as more people become insured.
“It stands to reason that, as there are fewer uninsured people, it should help reduce the cost of health care,” Pelland remarked. “Until that happens, it’s hard to pin a dollar amount to it.”
Human resource officials with Garfield County government, which has about 485 employees, are also waiting to hear from the CEBT insurance brokerage about rates for next year.
“Our pool is doing the research to determine what that impact will be,” said Renelle Lott, Garfield County’s communications director.
Once insurance costs are known, a presentation will be made to the Board of County Commissioners for purposes of determining what level of coverage to offer its employees for the coming year. The county operates on a regular calendar year starting in January.
As with the school district, the special Colorado Mountain College district will not know until next spring what its employee insurance rates will be for the next fiscal year, said CMC spokeswoman Debbie Crawford.
“We have been monitoring this for the past year to make sure the health insurance our full-time employees receive meet the federal guidelines,” she said.
CMC, which covers several central Colorado counties, has 407 full-time faculty and staff, who are eligible to participate in the college health insurance plan.
The college district also employs approximately 800 part-time faculty and staff across the district’s 11 locations and central services in Glenwood Springs. Many of them will be required to enter the state health exchange under Obamacare’s individual mandate.
That mandate requires that everyone carry health insurance, either through an employer-sponsored plan or individually, or face a penalty.
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