In year’s past, Blount County employees have had one option regarding health care.

That’s changing this year.

The current health care plan has existed since 2016. This is something that Cole Harris, vice president of sales and marketing for CBIZ, says is unheard of.

Harris works alongside human resources for the county to determine the best options for insurance.

“You need to have changes every year or you end up having a lot of big changes in one year,” he said.

On Thursday, the Blount County Commission voted on four resolutions regarding county employee health care. These votes bring big changes to the realm of county health care.

The resolutions ensure that employees have choices regarding their care, a fixed percentage to be paid by the county and the employee and incentives for joining a telemedicine program.

Options for plans

Plan one: In terms of benefits, it’s the same plan as before. In terms of price, it costs $51.38 more monthly than the 2019 plan.

The people who are likely to go with this plan are those who don’t want any changes to their current benefits.

Plan two: In terms of benefits, it differs from the previous plan because it requires that enrollees cover copays for doctors’ visits. This is an upgrade to the current plan because while employees previously had to meet the $750 deductible, they now have immediate coverage from the doctor. In terms of price, it costs about the same as the previous plan.

The people who are likely to go with this plan are those who only go to the doctor a few times a year.

Plan three: In terms of benefits, it differs from the 2019 plan because it allows enrollees to set up a health savings accounts.

The people who are likely to go with this plan are those who don’t go to the doctor much and want the least possible amount of money taken out of their paychecks. It is also for people who want to build a health savings account and save on their taxes. Lastly, it is for people who frequent the doctor and will meet their deductible quickly.

A health savings account allows people to put money in and use on medical expenses. This money does not accrue taxes. The money in the health savings account rolls over to the next year if not used.

A benefit counselor will be accessible during open enrollment in October to help determine what plan is right for each person and their families.

Split on health premiums

In years past, county employees paid a fixed monthly premium regardless of increases or decreases in costs.

With this resolution, the employer is guaranteed to pay 85%, and the employee is required to pay 15% of the county total health care plan.

This means that the premium rate would not be fixed for future years. After costs of prescriptions, doctors and other medical expenses are considered, the county will calculate the entire premium. These costs change annually.

After the county considers these costs, it then will pay 85% of the total premium, while the employees will pay the remaining 15% split up over 12 months.

Telemedicine incentive

In order to cut claims costs, the county has a telemedicine program, provided through Convenient CarePlus.

Telemedicine functions as a low-cost way to offer acute care. The patient calls or video chats with a doctor and receives care over the phone.

In previous years, the program has cost $10 for county employees; however, to incentivize the program this year, the county is offering to pay five of those dollars.

“The $60 for telemedicine is the amount the county is paying toward the premium if the employee wants to purchase it,” Harris said.

According to Harris, using telemedicine hugely reduces claims costs. The average doctor’s appointment costs $100, while the cost for an entire year of telemedicine is $60. This means that a person could call or video chat with his or her doctor every day for a year and it would still cost less for the county than one doctor’s appointment.

Opposition to changes

Commissioner Dodd Crowe, who is also an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at Carpenters Middle School, proposed that the county take more time to consider more options.

“If the commission does this, there’s a good opportunity that the teachers will go to the state plan,” Crowe said.

Commissioners Crowe, Brad Bowers and Nick Bright voted against the measure. Commissioner Staci Lawhorn abstained from voting. The resolution passed 17-4.

Though discussion about the health care plan and educators has taken place extensively, Harris said that if the school decided to break away from the county health plan, it would ultimately cost them more money.

“For the last 10 years, the county’s plan has been a better deal than the state’s plan,” he said.

If schools choose to go to the state health care plan, they are required to commit for two years.

The state recently voted to not increase the rates on the health plan.

“What history tells us is that if you do a rate hold, then you have a pretty big rate increase coming up.”

This means that if schools switch to the state plan, their premiums will almost inevitably increase in 2021.

Additionally, any savings schools would have in premiums, they would make up in claims, according to Harris, because the schools would have to pay the claims from November and December 2019 in addition to the paying the premiums in 2020.

Further, teachers hired after 2015 won’t have access to retiree health benefits with the state plan.

Shelby joined The Daily Times in 2019 as a reporter covering county government.

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