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Health costs threaten to swamp Hillsborough school district's budget

TAMPA — Employees of the Hillsborough County school system may see changes to their health care coverage in the coming year, as the district grapples for ways to balance the budget without layoffs, officials said Tuesday.

Soaring claim costs mean the district would pay around $29 million more just to keep the existing Humana policy as it is, benefits manager Deborah Henry told the board at a workshop.

Including other budget gaps, that would create a shortfall of at least $37 million in the district's projected $1.3 billion budget for next year, which must be balanced under Florida law.

"I just cannot come up with a version that is not painful," Henry said, reviewing possible ways to save money on the health care benefit.

Board members weighed those options, including raising deductibles, encouraging the use of mail-order prescriptions, and publicizing a new service that allows patients to seek a second opinion on diagnoses.

"I do favor a higher deductible," said member Jennifer Faliero, describing her personal coverage preference. "Because it makes the plan more affordable."

But Candy Olson cautioned against raising costs for the district's lowest-paid employees, including bus drivers, custodians or new teachers.

If that happens, Carol Kurdell said, "they're going to be going without insurance, without the drugs they need."

Hillsborough's health plan is unusually frugal compared with other districts, with less money going to administration and more money going to claims, said Richard Klima, senior vice president for Aon Consulting, which advises the district on its health coverage.

But the cost of the district's claims has shot up by around 12 percent, with 348 out of the district's 25,000 employees driving $41 million in costs, he said.

"What have you been doing to contain those costs?" Klima asked the board. "We want people to become more engaged with this and improve their behaviors. We all want to take responsibility to get more exercise and eat right."

Henry, the benefits manager, said the district does not plan to seek a new health care provider. But she hopes to provide a range of coverage options for employees who want to reduce their own expenses.

Her office also plans to make more aggressive efforts to tell employees how they can save the district money, using Facebook and Twitter to get the message out.

"I think our employees want to cut costs," Henry said. "If we tell them how to do it, they will do it."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Health costs threaten to swamp Hillsborough school district's budget 06/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 1:19am]

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