Commissioners air concern about insurance costs

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

With Osage County employees scheduled to make annual choices in October about their health insurance, county commissioners have wrestled in two recent meetings with concerns about costs.

Particularly, they have been concerned about an increase being passed along by CommunityCare HMO for calendar year 2021, and about the overall cost of CommunityCare's insurance product.

A county information packet shows that CommunityCare HMO health insurance went up from 970.34 per month per employee for 2020, to 1,067.28 per month per employee for 2021. With a total of $54.64 added onto those health premiums to account for dental, vision and life insurance options also offered to employees by the county, Osage County commissioners faced an overall increase for each employee choosing CommunityCare, from 1,024.98 per month to 1,121.92 per month.

The premiums are offered to the counties through the Oklahoma state plan.

October is the option month. Commissioners were being called on to approve a set of insurance choices for calendar year 2021 before the beginning of the option period. CommunityCare was the only one of the potential choices considered by the commissioners that increased its premium cost. The commissioners talked about the issue during a special meeting Thursday, Sept. 3, and then made a decision the next Tuesday, following Labor Day.

Examples of other premiums include BlueCross BlueShield's BlueLincs HMO premium of 593.50; and the Health Choice High premium of $615.90

More than 190 Osage County employees are covered, and the county pays their premiums. County commissioners were also provided with an annual projected total cost for health, dental, vision and life insurance premiums -- if employees were to choose to keep the same insurance plans they were already carrying -- of $1,750,926.96

County fiscal years run from July 1 through June 30, while health insurance premiums are quoted for calendar years (Jan. 1 – Dec. 31). Commissioners were told the cost of having 38 employees on CommunityCare HMO health coverage for the 2020-21 fiscal year would be $489,493.20. There are already 38 employees using that insurance.

As a result of the difference between calendar years and county fiscal years, the county can see health insurance premium costs change midway through the fiscal year.

Treasurer Sally Hulse voiced surprise that CommunityCare was so much higher.

District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones said the county could not afford it if all 190-plus of its employees were to choose CommunityCare.

“So, I have a problem with that,” Jones said. On the other hand, he also said that it concerned him to consider limiting employee choices.

District 3 Commissioner Darren McKinney explained that, in his experience, employees who chose CommunityCare insurance did so because it fit their particular needs regarding availability of care, not because it was a pricier option.

“But we have to limit what we’re obligated to do,” Jones said.

Assessor Ed Quinton Jr. asked if anyone had called CommunityCare and told the company that Osage County was thinking of dropping it because of the price.

“I don’t want to take anybody’s choice from them,” Jones said.

There was some discussion in the Sept. 3 special meeting of possibly putting a ceiling on how much the county would pay for a monthly health insurance premium, leaving it up to employees to cover the additional cost if they were to choose an option with a price higher than the ceiling. County Clerk Shelia Bellamy warned the commissioners that Osage County employees would not be able to afford to take on the burden.

Both Jones and McKinney indicated they could talk to employees who work for their road maintenance operations, to see if they might be willing to choose something less expensive than CommunityCare.

When the county board reconvened Sept. 8, Jones and McKinney each said that some of their employees would be willing to consider changing from CommunityCare to something else.

Jones said the county needs for employees to know that CommunityCare might be pricing itself out of range.

“It’s getting out of hand,” Jones said, noting that if insurance costs are not checked, that will cut into the amount of money available for road maintenance projects. The commissioners voted 3-0 on Sept. 8 to accept the CommunityCare option, as well as others, for calendar year 2021, but also emphasized that 2021 could be the last year they will offer CommunityCare insurance if costs continue to rise.

CommunityCare's perspective

Josiah Sutton, vice president for Marketing for CommunityCare, told the Journal-Capital in an email that the company is “hopeful for positive improvements in the near future.” Sutton said CommunityCare has been engaged in an “aggressive turnaround” in the past two years. The full text of the statement that Sutton offered on behalf of CommunityCare is as follows:

“As Oklahoma’s largest, locally owned health insurance company, CommunityCare exists to support and care for Oklahomans. Our health plan members have always been and continue to be our first priority because we are not accountable to out-of-state corporations or Wall Street investors. Over the last two years, CommunityCare has been engaged in an aggressive turnaround that has seen our two owners, Saint Francis Health System and Ascension St. John, invest heavily to ensure capabilities are meeting patient needs. As a result, we were able to reduce our Medicare Advantage premiums by nearly 30% for 2020 and are excited to introduce additional improvements in our individual, small group and Medicare Advantage rates for 2021. CommunityCare continues to work closely with the EGID (Employees Group Insurance Division) for all municipal entities enrolled through the State of Oklahoma plan and we are hopeful for positive improvements in the near future.”