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story.lead_photo.caption Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. is shown in this file photo. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Little Rock city employees will for the first time contribute to a base health insurance plan in 2020, a year in which most workers will not receive raises.

In previous years, city employees paid only toward their plans if they included dependents. City directors, at the recommendation of Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and the city's management, approved the $15 million fully insured plan at a meeting Tuesday at City Hall.

The city has about 2,150 employees. Under the plan, employees would contribute $34.28 per month for a base plan and $117.11 monthly for a plan with dependents.

Renewing its contract with insurer United Healthcare, the city faced a 15% cost increase of roughly $1.2 million to $1.6 million. The city and its employees will each shoulder half of that cost increase under the new rates for 2020.

In previous meetings this fall, city directors discussed the possibility of moving to a self-funded plan, where the city would take on financial risk for providing health care benefits to its employees, but provide access to a "clinically integrated network" of hundreds of physicians who would provide holistic, preventive care. The city's leadership ultimately opted to stay with a fully insured plan and hope to move to a self-funded plan in 2021.

"Obviously this is a significant change in the culture of our organization," City Manager Bruce Moore said.

Scott said the decision wasn't easy.

"We know this is a challenge but even with splitting this 15% increase is a generous amount of money compared to other municipalities, the state government, the private sector," Scott said. "I know it's a tough choice, but we are all fiscal stewards as you know, and we've got to make the right decision."

No part of the city's dental or vision plans will change, and most of the current benefits will be kept in 2020, Human Resources Director Stacey Witherell said. Some benefits will require a higher copay, including physical therapy and mental-health services, because of a change that will classify them as "specialist" copays, rather than "primary care physician" copays, Witherell said.

However, employees can pay more up front for a "buy up plan" to reduce copays down the road, Witherell said.

"Thirty-four dollars a month is expensive, but I think employees understand the importance of insurance and they want to make sure they do what they can to protect themselves from having to file bankruptcy in the long term if they were to be injured," Witherell said.

At the same meeting, the city board previewed a draft of its 2020 budget, which includes raises for a small portion of city employees. Code-enforcement and animal-services officers' yearly salaries will go up by $2,500 after concerns about turnover in those divisions, and increases of $2 per hour for waste-disposal personnel will be covered by an increase in garbage fees that will take effect in January. Workers who keep the streets clean will get raises of $1 per hour, and nonuniform union employees will receive a lump sum payment of $500.

Richard Morehead, president of the firefighters union, said the organization had concerns about access to benefits. He said the city's employee assistance program, which gives workers access to licensed counselors on a variety of topics free of charge, wasn't enough.

"The amount of trauma that firefighters see each day has a negative impact and we don't have any confidence in the [assistance] program that the city provides," Morehead said.

Witherell said she was not aware of the concerns about the employee assistance program that Morehead had mentioned. She said the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police was not supportive of contributing to a health care plan.

She said she had heard from employees that cheaper options could be found in the insurance market, depending on the number of dependents and their ages.

The city's open-enrollment period is Nov. 4-15.

Metro on 10/30/2019

Print Headline: Little Rock employees to pay portion of insurance

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