TAMPA — Hillsborough County government workers are weathering unprecedented job cuts, pay freezes and unpaid furloughs.
All of that should sound familiar to many workers in the private sector.
Now another hallmark of government employment that used to include job security and steady annual pay raises is going away: low-cost health insurance.
A pair of decisions by county commissioners in the past year mean county employees will have to start paying if they want to keep their Cadillac-style health insurance. Otherwise, they'll be forced into coverage that offers lower premiums but also makes employees pay a greater share of their initial health expenses for the year.
"We've been very lucky as employees to have the type of coverage we've had," said Hillsborough County management services administrator Eric Johnson. "Now, if they want to continue to have that high-end benefit package, they're going to have to pay a significant amount of money to retain it."
Those with family coverage would be hit the hardest, under a rate plan headed to commissioners for approval Wednesday. They'll see their monthly premiums nearly double to $457 this year.
Single employees will see their premiums climb from $156 to $239.
County employees receive a $210 monthly stipend of sorts, known as a cafeteria benefit, that can be applied to health insurance premium costs. In the past, that has more than taken care of premium costs for singles and covered most of the premium for employees with families, giving them free or nearly free insurance.
The new rate structure means many county employees will have to pay out of pocket to meet their premium for the first time.
County employees at the lower end of the pay scale will suddenly face a large new expense that could present a challenge for many as their wages stagnate or fall.
Next year, health costs likely will go up while commissioners face pressure to keep salaries flat in order to balance the budget.
"I'm disgusted by it," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who was on the losing side of a key board decision driving a good chunk of the cost increase. "Our employees are going to get nailed at the worst possible time."
Earlier this year, commissioners decided that the county would not increase the share of employee health costs covered by taxpayers — close to $50 million. But it's a second, more hotly debated decision by commissioners this fall that has Hagan miffed.
The county had sought new bids for a health insurance provider. By a 4-3 vote, the board rejected an initial offer from insurer Cigna that would have lowered the cost increase to county employees.
Hillsborough government is currently self-insured, meaning it pays the costs of health care claims. It pays insurer Humana to process those claims.
Cigna had offered a fully insured plan in which it would accept the risk of health care claims. Its offer was $11 million less over the next two years than what staying with Humana and a self-insured program is expected to cost.
Commissioners overlooked the recommendation of an employee advisory group and two separate consultants in voting to stick with Humana. Commissioners Jim Norman, Al Higginbotham, Kevin Beckner and Kevin White were on the winning side, with each offering different reasons for their decision.
Norman cited bad experiences with Cigna when it was the county's insurer previously. Beckner argued the merits of staying self-insured and unknown cost increases in the third year of the contract.
Higginbotham said it's simply time employees started paying a greater share of health costs. The new Humana plan gives employees a new choice of lower upfront premiums in exchange for deductibles, some of them steep depending on the option chosen.
"We've kept them rates artificially low for some time," Higginbotham said. "At some point, you've got to be realistic about what costs are."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.