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Jackson County, workers at odds over health insurance

A group of unionized Jackson County employees says the county is rejecting a health insurance proposal that could save $870,000 per year, but county officials say the state-managed insurance that employees want could turn into a financial quagmire similar to Oregon’s costly Public Employees Retirement System.

County officials say the $870,000 also represents a worst-case scenario regarding costs if those employees join the county’s self-insurance pool.

Using more moderate projections, the county believes putting the employee group in the county pool could instead save $220,800 annually.

The Jackson County Employees Association, a subgroup of the Service Employees International Union with about 460 county employees, made the contract dispute public by issuing a press release this week.

“Jackson County rejected an $870,000 per year cost saving proposal on Monday that would wrap employees into the Public Employee Benefits Board health care plan, putting contract negotiations with employees at risk,” the press release said.

The union wants those cost savings to go toward boosting pay for employees, who it says earn 13% to 28% less than comparable workers in other counties.

The Public Employee Benefits Board is a statewide pool that covers state employees and some school districts and universities. The Oregon Legislature passed a law allowing local governments to join, but none have so far, according to Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton, who is representing the county in the negotiations with employees.

If Jackson County joined the state health insurance pool, it could never get out — no matter how high costs rose in the future, he said.

“It’s a one-time choice today that could have ramifications for decades,” Benton said.

He pointed to the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System as a state-run benefits program that is crushing local governments.

Past promises of overly generous, unfunded retirement benefits for older public workers are putting increasing strain on cities, counties and school districts in Oregon that have to help cover costs.

Ben Morris, who works for SEIU, said there is no comparison between the state health insurance pool and PERS.

Cost growth for the state health insurance pool is capped at 3.4% annually by law. Meanwhile, the cost of insurance in general has been growing at a faster rate, he said.

“That cost protection is rock solid,” Morris said.

Benton said the Oregon Legislature could always change the cost growth cap, and Jackson County would have no control over such a move.

The union says moving to the state insurance plan would save money for both the county government and employees. The current plan for the employee group has such expensive deductibles and out-of-pocket costs that many skip doctors’ visits or use public assistance to pay for health care.

“Moving to PEBB is one of those rare win-wins,” said Del Hackworth, a county employee and member of the bargaining team. “Employees need a health care plan we can actually afford to use, which PEBB offers, and the county needs a plan that fits their budget.”

Benton agreed the health insurance for the employee group is too expensive and said the county has been losing employees because out-of-pocket costs are too high for workers.

But he said the county contributes money for health insurance and it was the union that purchased the plan.

“We’re losing employees based on the plan they picked,” Benton said.

If workers in the group join the state insurance pool, they would pay $0 per month in premiums toward the plan, he said.

The county wants workers to join its pool of self-insured workers, which includes nonunion managers, and pay $110 per month toward premiums in the first year of the contract, $120 in the second year and $130 in the third year, Benton said.

The employee premiums per month are the same whether a worker is buying individual or family insurance, he said.

The health insurance the union bought for the group of county workers costs employees $185 per month, Benton said.

Across America, the average worker with employer-provided coverage pays $99 monthly toward the cost of individual insurance and $462 monthly toward the cost of family insurance, according to the 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation Employer Health Benefits Survey.

If the group of county workers joined the county’s self-insured pool with managers and some other employees, they would be encouraged — but not required — to use the county’s wellness clinic, Benton said.

Using the clinic allows both the county and employees to save money on doctors’ visits, medication, tests and other medical care, he said.

“It’s a win-win for everyone. They get care, and it costs us less,” Benton said.

The county has a 12-year track record of keeping costs down with its self-insurance model for managers, he said.

The county has offered to contribute $1,708 per employee per month toward the cost of self-insured health care, Benton and the union agree.

Benton said the county thinks actual costs would be $1,510 per employee per month, but costs can’t be known in advance.

The union wants the county to contribute $1,550 per employee each month for workers to join the state insurance pool.

Over the course of a year, the county would contribute $872,160 less toward the state-run plan than if it ends up paying for the worst-case scenario under the county self-insurance plan.

The union wants savings put toward higher play under the union proposal.

Benton said proposed cost-of-living adjustments and annual merit raises will gradually lift employee pay.

He said the union’s finding that county employees earn 13% to 28% less than their counterparts is based on comparisons with Clackamas, Marion and Lane counties, which are more urban than Jackson County.

Benton said the county is willing to commit to a comparison study of employee compensation, but there would be no guarantee of enough money to fund pay increases beyond the regular COLA and merit raises.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO A study for the Oregon Business Plan found that some public employees paid less than their counterparts in other states for health insurance benefits.