A handful of former Buncombe County employees had a message for commissioners during their regular meeting on Sept. 18: “Please consider the retirees.”
Facing a projected budget gap of about $1.7 million for FY 2020, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners heard a proposal by interim County Manager George Wood that’s intended to get the county closer to a balanced budget. Along with drastically curtailing a policy that allows county employees to sell unused leave back to the county, the proposal would replace the county’s three employee health care plans with two new plans.
Three Buncombe County retirees expressed concern about how a change to the county’s health care offerings would affect them and their peers.
“We worked for the county not because it had the best pay but because of good benefits,” said retiree Chris Winslow, a retired sheriff’s department employee who was also a candidate for Buncombe County sheriff in this year’s Democratic primary. Retirees, he stressed, don’t benefit from automatic pay raises or promotions. “What we receive from retirement each month is all that we will receive until Social Security starts. If it’s still available.”
Rosemary Kuykendall-Rice, a retired detective in the sheriff’s office, said many former Buncombe County employees have accepted early retirement, a decision they were told would save county government resources. “We didn’t do that job because of the money,” she said. “We did it because we wanted to and we wanted to protect the county. And now we’re hoping that y’all will protect us.”
Compared to peer counties and cities, Buncombe County has the richest health care benefits, said Curt Euler, director of employee benefits and risk management. “That is not a bad thing,” Euler told commissioners. “I think that’s something that we want to be a leader in. That’s the main reason why people come to work for the county; that’s the main reason people stay with the county for as long as they do.”
While he believes it’s important for the county to preserve its benefits to the extent possible, Euler said the county also needs to be realistic about its financial health.
“The health plans’ cost are increasing at an exponential rate, and we don’t have the revenues to make up the deficits,” he said. In a Sept. 11 memo to commissioners, Wood estimated county expenses associated with health insurance claims would increase by 10 percent, or $2.7 million, in FY 2020, based on recent trends.
Of the county’s three plans, the standard plan provides the most generous benefits: After an employee meets his or her deductible, the county pays 95 percent of the cost of medical claims and the employee pays 5 percent. Wood said comparable counties don’t offer a similar plan because of its high cost. About 54 percent of Buncombe County employees and retirees are on this plan, Wood said, but it has been closed to new hires since 2009.
“We simply cannot afford this plan,” Wood wrote in the memo, “nor can we justify to our taxpayers keeping it.”
The two plans proposed by Wood would both have an 80/20 cost ratio. One, the Consumer Directed Plan, would combine a high deductible with a health savings account, and the other would use Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina’s preferred provider organization.
To encourage employees to pick the Consumer Directed Plan, Wood said the plan would charge lower premiums, and the county would deposit $1,000 in employees’ health savings accounts annually.
Euler said that in 2017, Buncombe County paid 95 percent of its employees’ health care costs, excluding premiums. Similar employers that use the Blue Cross Blue Shield network pay on average 86 percent of health care costs, leaving 14 percent to employees.
“Our employees are paying a lot less than other comparable government agencies with Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s book of business,” Euler said.
Adopting the two proposed plans, Euler said, would bring the percentage the county pays on employee health care down to 87 percent — close to the 86 percent average cost share of comparable government agencies that use the Blue Cross network. It would also save the county an estimated $1.24 million.
Winslow acknowledged that the county needs to change.
“But look after your retirees,” he said, “the ones that stayed with Buncombe County for those benefits.”
Commissioners did not vote on the proposal on Sept. 18.