Weatherford Democrat

March 19, 2013

Health plans may change for county employees


Weatherford Democrat

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By JUDY SHERIDAN

Significant changes appear to be ahead for Parker County employees when it comes to health plans, according to a recent presentation given to Parker County commissioners and others by PEBC, Public Employee Benefits Cooperative, in conjunction with consulting firm Towers Watson.

Parker County is a member of the PEBC and participates in its employee benefits program.

The changes are being driven by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, as well as rising health care costs.

They reflect not only the new requirement that everyone have access to health care, but also a new excise tax that effectively caps the amount of coverage employers can offer, forcing employers and employees to seek out more cost effective health care options.

The intent of the changes is to make employees more conscious of their health care costs and motivate them to take more responsibility for their health care decisions.

The new offering is likely to be a High-Deductible Health Plan with a Health Savings Account — as defined by the IRS — and is being designed to navigate between the two federal mandates.

In April the PEBC board will consider replacing an existing Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO) plan with the HDHP, with implementation on Jan. 1, 2014.

The existing Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) option, with a Flexible Spending Account — selected by most Parker County employees — will continue to be offered.

Under the HDHP, a county employee would pay much higher costs up front, but he or she would gain an HSA, which has significant advantages over the current FSA option, a PEBC presenter said.

In addition, the higher up-front costs could be mitigated by contributions from the county to the HSA.

An HSA is designed to encourage saving, not spending, because the account belongs to the employee and rolls over every year, the presenter said. It stays with an individual even if the employee terminates his or her employment or retires.

The contributions are pre-tax and the earnings are tax-free, as well as withdrawals for medical purposes.

Employers are opting for HDHP plans because studies show that they better control costs and change employee behavior, according to the PEBC representative.

Nationally, 53 percent of companies had adopted such plans by 2011 — 61 percent in the Dallas/Fort Worth area — according to a survey completed by Towers Watson.

If Parker County makes no changes to their current insurance plans, Towers Watson projects that in 2018, when the excise tax takes effect, the county will owe $750,000 in taxes, which would grow to $2 million in 2023.

Judge Mark Riley pointed out that additionally, the new health care law will require the county to pay compliance fees of about $52,000 — for its nearly 800 employees and dependents — in 2014.