Buncombe County is out for blood, according to Matthew Putnam. Changes to health insurance benefits proposed by high-level county staff, said the Buncombe employee during public comment at the Jan. 21 Board of Commissioners meeting, will require all workers and their spouses to submit to intravenous blood draws and other medical testing or pay double their current premiums.
Hanna Honeycutt, who works along with Putnam as a lawyer for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, noted that the new requirements would penalize employees who did not share their protected health information with a third-party company, Denver, N.C.-based Synergy Healthcare. The firm would use the measurements to create a “risk score” for each insured individual; those deemed high risk would be required to visit the employee clinic and develop a health improvement plan.
County Manager Avril Pinder and Senior Staff Attorney Michael Frue, the two lawyers argued, were pushing the changes through without proper oversight from elected officials. Buncombe’s personnel ordinance, Putnam said, requires commissioners to approve any “change in employee benefits structure and options,” but the county’s attorneys had claimed that the modifications were below the level requiring the board’s consideration.
“What’s more disturbing than the blood draw is the fact that county legal and this current county administration is taking an approach that would even attempt to skirt past Board of Commissioners oversight,” Putnam said. “Our recent scandals have shown that transparency and oversight should be the touchstones of not only every county employee, but certainly the Board of Commissioners.”
Speaking with Xpress after the meeting, Pinder stood by her legal team’s evaluation of the changes and the need for board evaluation. She said the health assessments and risk scores — along with a 6.6% increase in all employee contributions toward premiums — were required to control Buncombe’s rising worker health care expenses.
“We responded to that,” Pinder said about the concerns of Putnam and Honeycutt. “They didn’t like the response, so I think that’s why they’re here tonight.”
Pinder and Frue also told Xpress that they weren’t aware of any other employees who had raised concerns over the new policy. However, a thread about the health risk assessments on the county’s internal forums contained critical comments from at least a dozen other Buncombe workers as of Jan. 16. “I feel we are still paying for the sins of others!” wrote Valerie Wright in a comment that received 20 likes.
According to the county’s website, employees must submit their medical testing information to Synergy by Sunday, March 15. Pinder said commissioners will vote on the new premium schedule, including penalties for noncompliance with the testing, as part of the fiscal year 2020-21 budget.
In other news
Also during public comment, a contingent of five Black Mountain and Montreat residents asked the commissioners to formally censure county municipalities that moved their elections from 2019 to 2020. This change, they argued, gave many local officials an unelected extra year in office and violated the basic tenets of democracy.
“More than 75,000 Buncombe County residents, 40% of county voters, were denied access to the ballot box,” said Montreat resident Mary Standaert. “Such actions undermine confidence in the entire voting process.”
And following a three-hour special meeting earlier in the day, commissioners unanimously appointed eight members of the inaugural nine-member Parks, Greenways and Recreation Advisory Board. Representing District 1 are Dusty Allison, Sam Mason and Derek Turno, while representing District 3 are Ally Howell, Lena Richards and Teresa Williams.
Because not all applicants from District 2 could attend the interviews, commissioners named only Ann Babcock and Carol Peterson to the board. The final member will be appointed from the remaining District 2 candidates at a later date.