Butler County insurance costs could be impacted by coronavirus despite new contract

The Butler County commissioners recently approved a new health insurance contract with United Healthcare, but officials warn final costs could be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Increasing health insurance costs have frustrated the commissioners and, at times, flared tempers. The three recently authorized a new contract with UHC to administer the self-insurance program that is anticipated to cost $20 million. The $1.5 million increase from last year is an 8 percent increase, which is lower than the predicted 14 percent increase.

County Administrator Judi Boyko told the Journal-News the coronavirus pandemic could impact the cost.

“Health care and corresponding insurance providers’s costs will be unknown and indicative of pandemic response and not just utilization,” she said. “These circumstances may lend to unknown higher renewal costs. Staff will be monitoring this closely.”

RELATED: Butler County saved $1.5M on once-ballooning health insurance costs last year

Earlier this year Boyko reported to the commissioners that claims last year totalled about $16.2 million, which was $1.5 million lower than budgeted.

The county went to a self-insurance model in 2017 after several years of double-digit percentage increases for insurance coverage. Some large, unusual claims over several years drove those increases, including a single $5 million claim in 2013 and a $3 million claims month in November 2014.

Under the self-insured plan, the county pays an administrative fee and the claims itself out of county coffers. There is a single claim limit of $175,000 and a total limit of $20.8 million, so any bills over those amounts are paid by UHC.

The plan also includes a number of wellness initiatives that officials believe helped drive down claims last year. The program was tweaked this year to abolish the previous practice of offering employees $60-per-month premium credits.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said employees can now receive gift cards for participating in multiple programs, some as simple as routine medical exams, mammograms, colonoscopies and other screenings. People suffering from more chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes can get even more gift cards for participating in counseling and other programs tailored to their particular disease.

Human Resources Director Laurie Murphy said employees are eligible to receive up to $250 in gift cards and can earn “Rally” coins that can be redeemed for merchandise like a Fitbit. The UHC portal helps employees choose programs suited to their personal needs.

“The portal is intuitive in that when the employee completes the health survey, recommendations, resources and activities are identified, based on the individual employee’s answers,” Murphy said. “We also have a weight loss program called Real Appeal. This is a several week program that includes group counseling conducted by a weight loss professional.”

Facing a 24 percent rate hike for 2019, the commissioners went shopping for a new provider. The health insurance contract sparked uncharacteristic discord among the commissioners with a 2-1 vote in favor of Medical Mutual of Ohio.

“I have never more strongly disagreed with the decision of this board of commissioners, nor any previous board of commissioners since I’ve been an elected official,” Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said after an October 2018 executive session on the issue.

“I believe in my heart that this is completely the wrong decision to make.”

The commissioners did an about-face two weeks later and approved a contract with UHC.

Murphy said when the pandemic hit, targeted monthly communications to employees became daily messages and “the ‘BeWellButler’ motto is even more important during these trying times.”

“Many of the articles focus on reducing stress and mental health issues which have been increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees have been provided contact information for new programs that UHC and Reach, our Employee Assistance Program, have rolled out, specific to providing COVID-19 related support,” Murphy said. “There is a wealth of resources and support available to our employees and we encourage them daily to use it.”

The insurance renewed on Jan. 1 but Murphy said it took a couple months to get the contract in its final form.

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