We Can't Afford Healthcare Benefits For Roommates Of Chattanooga City Employees - And Response (5)

Friday, November 1, 2013 - by Deborah Scott

Nov. 12th, the Chattanooga City Council is poised to open a Pandora's Box by offering full healthcare benefits to the girl and boy friend roommates of city employees. The move appears to have the full support of Mayor Berke, Councilman Anderson (ordinance sponsor) and Councilwoman Berz. Councilmen Grohn and Henderson appear opposed. Simply stated, the city cannot afford to give employee healthcare benefits to roommates.

Citizens employed in the private sector are reeling in disbelief at the ease in which this matter has grown legs. Others are wondering why, after the launch of the Affordable Care Act, anyone would consider having the city subsidize and supply what the federal government exchanges will already offer to the uninsured. Problems can be expected when government entities throw money at the social issues of consenting adults.

If Chattanooga follows the lead of the city of Collegedale (who gave employee healthcare benefits to roommates) it will be a tough act to follow.  If Chattanooga extends its current Cadillac family coverage to boy and girl friends of employees in "committed" relationships, there will be a much larger price tag. Among other things, Collegedale is not paying for healthcare coverage provided at a newly built multi-milliondollar Employee Fitness Center, Clinic and Pharmacy.

Sharing the cost of utilities, joint property ownership or living with someone six months helps define "committed" relationships in the city of Collegedale. A committed relationship used to mean legally married. Today, the term "committed relationship" is decidedly more flexible.   Many people have strong feelings about what constitutes a committed relationship. We need to table those arguments and allow them to be settled at the state and federal levels, so that our city can deal with the most salient municipal feature - cost.

Citizens need to ask: What will this cost and how can we afford it long-term? Also, what will be the cost 10-20 years from now when the roll of retiree beneficiaries has ballooned? Extending benefits will increase the costs of current health benefits and by default increase the city's ongoing financial cost known as OPEB. OPEB stands for Other Post Employment Benefits. The city is already responsible for providing lifetime (until Medicare eligible) healthcare benefits to married spouses and their dependents.  That is a multi-million-dollar expense. We know those healthcare expenses escalate annually. We know benefits extended to girl and boy friends will substantially increase those expenses. We also know pension costs are escalating annually. We know both of Chattanooga's pension plans are substantially underfunded. Folks, we are talking underfunded by $724 million. Due to the gargantuan sums of money required to meet these current and fixed future mandates, taxpayers are not in any position to make additional commitments to insure employee girl friends or boy friends. Even with additional taxpayer payments, employees will be required to shoulder more responsibility for future pension costs and the same will occur for insurance costs.

It is foolhardy to knowingly overload a ferry boat.  How many people can one boat carry without capsizing? We are debating whether to add new beneficiaries to the existing plan.  The more pressing question is: How long can the city continue the current Cadillac healthcare benefits for current members if we increase the load? Do the math.  Costs are rising and revenues are essentially flat for the city of Chattanooga. The focus of city officials should be to protect the current employees and families who will be unwittingly sabotaged by approving Councilman Anderson's proposed plan.

The only long-term way to cover the total cost of this expansion will be to increase taxes, decrease benefits, or have employees shoulder a larger portion of the cost of those benefits. If employees would agree to bear the burden of increased costs going forward, the city could easily offer insurance to all employee significant others. Proponents of this plan argue that the increased city cost will remain in the "six figure range." That's not a well-informed conclusion of the eventual cost. This proposal is said to have wide support by employees and union members. City Council should ask employees and union members if they will agree now to personally subsidize the difference between proposed and actual cost increases 1-5-10-15-20 years from now.

While the intentions of offering these health benefits are laudable, we should not be blind to the eventual consequences to current employees and the taxpayers who pay dearly to subsidize the healthcare that is enjoyed today.  If employees and taxpayers sit quietly while this plan is officially approved, there will be a high price to pay for apathy.

All nine Councilpersons will be casting a vote on this matter. Those who have not decided which way to vote need to hear your views immediately. Please go to www.Chattanooga.gov to email them. Tell every undeclared Councilperson (not just your representative) where you stand on this matter, because every vote will impact future tax rates and determine the future viability of continued healthcare benefits for all city employees.

Deborah Scott

* * *  

Debbie, Knoxville is following the trends and offering health care bennies, so is Cincinnati.  It's going on nationwide.  

I'm a very old wise man, and you oughta know the only sure things in life is death and taxes and all they're doing is broadening the tax base, so the rich don't gotta pay, don'tcha see.  

You're most welcome to whine and post your long winded loquacious opinions trying to influence the citizens, that's what freedom is all about, but ya gotta remember, we live in a capitalistic country, and it's just business, and Mayor Andy Burke is just taking care of business. 

Donald DeWayne Woods

* * *

The discussion for benefits for same-sex couples within the city government took a wrong turn when it went from being those who are essentially married to anyone who has lived with a city employee for six months (because six months defines a long term relationship...in middle school). This was brought about to provide benefits to same-sex couples, but it has snowballed into everybody. 

Deborah Scott brings up a solid point: that's going to be really expensive. I don't know the numbers on how many folks the city employs or how much their costs to provide benefits shakes down it. The real kicker is that the national average for people who are married hovers right around half. That means the city is liable for 100 percent of the employees and 50 percent of their spouses. Under the proposed plan, the city will be potentially liable for the same 100 percent for the employees and 100 percent for their special person.  

One should also take into account that most businesses that provide insurance to spouses implement a policy that says if your spouse has insurance through another avenue, they have to use the alternative. Some even go so far as to make you prove that it's cheaper to insure your kids through your company than it is to have them on your spouse's plan. And yet, some within the council are wanting the taxpayers to agree to blindly pay for anyone and everyone.  

I am with Deborah Scott on this one; the city doesn't need to double down on health benefits for anyone and everyone so that same-sex couples can get benefits.  

Does anyone have any idea how many city employees (percentage) are in same-sex relationships and stand to benefit from this?  

Tim Giordano

* * *

I do not live in Chattanooga. Nonetheless, I post my comments about the proposed ordinance extending health care insurance benefits to the member of the domestic partnership who is not an employee of the city.

To begin with, I think anyone who comments about the proposed ordinance should read it. Thanks to John Wilson for posting the proposed ordinance on this website.

The term for the couple is  Domestic Partners. The proposed ordinance has specific requirements which must be met for the couple to qualify, including living together in a principal residence continuously for at least 365 days (not six months, as said by one person). The couple is also required to present documentary evidence to prove their commitment. Read the proposed ordinance for the exact requirements.

Credit the drafters of the proposed ordinance for having thought it through. Like it or not, you know what it says and what it means.

I cannot comment on the projected cost. Many businesses do not pay any portion of the premium for "spousal" coverage. Does the city, and if so, how much? Estimate the number of Domestic Partners, and you can do the rudimentary math. I would be surprised if the doomsday prediction by one poster would be correct.

Don Strickland
Signal Mountain 

* * * 

I am not sure what would motivate Donald from Knoxville or Donald from Signal Mountain to weigh in on expanding the city employed healthcare benefits in Chattanooga. However, let's examine the merits of their comments.  

Donald of Knoxville proudly crows that Knoxville is following trends that are "going nationwide." By executive order, Knoxville's mayor offered full benefits to the unmarried live-ins of city employees. It would be difficult to prove they are a beacon of good financial judgement using their week of data. Surprising, Knoxville estimates the annual cost will be $60,000. That's an incredibly low annual cost, just judging it based on the cost of my own private sector plan. The city of Chattanooga is self-insured. A self-insured plan means the city pays the full cost of all healthcare. If one new enrollee in a self-insured plan is hospitalized for a complicated heart by-pass surgery, $60,000 wouldn't come close to paying the bill. So how did Knoxville decide the additional annual cost would be $60,000/year? Either, Knoxville is not self-insured and they extrapolated their cost based solely on subsidizing insurance premiums for new enrollees, or they expect only one enrollee, or Knoxville made a huge mistake.   

Should Chattanooga jump on the bandwagon of what is going "nationwide?"  

Does anyone need to be reminded of when low or no interest mortgages, over exuberant investment in the stock market, and white "go-go boots" went nationwide? The expected behavior of Chattanoogans should not be "monkey see monkey do." 

Donald of Knoxville suggested "broadening" the tax base as a payment strategy. That is code speak for "just have more people pay more taxes." Since Donald is from Knoxville, he probably doesn't know that our ex-Mayor Littlefield (with the help of yes voting Councilwoman Berz and Councilman Gilbert) already "broadened" Chattanooga's tax base by raising taxes about 19 percent recently. Chattanooga's homeowners have been "broadened" to death.  

Donald of Signal Mountain derides Ms. Scott about not reading the proposed ordinance. Her editorial was posted Friday morning, or at least that's when I read it online. Chattanooga's proposed ordinance was not released to the public until late Friday evening. Ms. Scott never misquoted the Chattanooga ordinance. She mentioned Collegedale's ordinance, possibly because citizens who asked to read the new ordinance were referred to the Collegedale ordinance.  

The public only has a weekend to review the proposed ordinance, so let's talk about what it does say. It states the additional cost to implement this benefit "based on initial research" will be "less than 1 percent of the total budget." One percent seems like a small number, so just to be safe let's do the math as Ms. Scott suggested. The annual budget is $209 million.  If this plan passes, Chattanoogans will need to find an additional $2.09 million dollars for 2015. Multiply that number by 25 years and tack on inflation, because healthcare costs go up.  

Knoxville can't teach Chattanooga much from their experience. So what can we learn from Signal Mountain's experience in delivering free healthcare benefits to the housemates of their city employees?  No wait, I don't think the town of Signal Mountain offers these benefits.  

Ms. Scott is correct. This would be a very costly thing to do. Once done, it will be impossible to reverse course.  Our elected officials should use their heads and develop shoulders broad enough to say no to ill conceived trends. 

John Pierce

* * * 

I have worked for the city of Chattanooga for 27 years and 7 months.  For the first 24 years and 3 months of my employment, I was promised if I remained a loyal employee for 25 years one of the rewards would be that when I retired I would be able to retain my city insurance as my Medicare supplement.  After the city opened the Wellness Center we were told that if we retired with 25 years employment we would also be able to continue to use this Wellness Center.  

In July 2010 under the Ron Littlefield administration, without so much as an “I’m sorry,” these promises were snatched from us.  If you did not have 25 years of service in by July 1, 2010 you lost all privileges to the Wellness Center and the city insurance plan.  The reason:  It was too costly to the city and the citizens.  

Now it seems that there is “sudden found funds” so much so that the city will be able to insure the “significant other” of any city employee who desires this coverage.  I would like to ask this administration to do the right thing and restore what was taken from so many loyal employees in 2010 before you offer insurance to the entire city.  This should include those who have already retired and those who are currently employed.  

I have always given to many different charitable organizations.  I feel that this is required from me by God but never has God required of me; nor have I felt it the right thing to do, to give to anyone or any group while my family was in need or hungry.   I believe reaching out to others is fine but we must fulfill our obligation to family first. 

Come on, guys.  You know the move to insure outsiders before you take care of city employees is the wrong thing to do.   

Jan Turner

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