Wicomico employees concerned with health plan changes

In response to tearful pleas from retired county employees faced with higher health care and medication costs under a new plan, the Wicomico County Council will plan a work session to search for a solution.

At the County Council meeting Tuesday, Council President John Cannon said the matter has been on his list for discussion, adding the council is obligated to explore it.

“There was a savings of more than $300,000 to change plans. Is there any way, through the council’s recommendations, to look at some kind of an offset, for those individuals who are most affected? I’m sure the process has been thoroughly vetted but as a Council we are trying to understand this,” Cannon said.

“We are letting things fall through the cracks. It would thoroughly benefit everybody to try and understand this. We will address this in a work session to see what we can do to alleviate your concerns,” he told retirees who spoke at the meeting.

County Administrator Wayne Strausburg later told the Salisbury Independent he, and the county administration, are sympathetic to retirees’ dismay.

“We have heard them and we are trying to figure out how to fix that. It’s a legitimate issue. I’m not trying to minimalize that … but for the vast majority of retirees, it’s good plan,” Strausburg said.

Health premiums “came in at a substantial rate increase” this year, 6.4 percent higher for active employees and 16.4 percent for retirees.

“Let me put that in perspective from the standpoint of retirees. The total premium for a retiree under the plan we have proposed would actually be reduced by nearly 60 percent. Instead of $1,183 a year, they would pay $493 a year,” Strausburg said.

About 40 retirees opted into the new plan. “Their experience was very good. And we were encouraged by that,” Strausburg said.

Medical benefits of the current plan, opposed to the plan the county is going to, are essentially equivalent, maybe better, he said. Drug benefits are comparable for the majority of prescriptions, “but we have run into an issue for some specialty drugs,” he said.

“These are drugs for people suffering from chronic illness — diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. This is the so-called doughnut hole you can fall into if you are dependent on very specialized drugs, expensive drugs,” he said.

County officials have heard complaints from about 10 retirees out of 115, he said.

The discussion began when, during the Public Comments portion of the County Council meeting Tuesday, retiree Brenda Miller said she assumed retirees would pay the same for benefits as active employees.

“Retirees have been singled out,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.

When she called Blue Cross to ask about coverage, she was referred to the County’s Human Resources office, she said.

“I never knew there were restrictions about calling Blue Cross and Blue Shield. I was shocked,” she said.

Retiree Ed Torbert said retirees were told at an informative meeting last week that they don’t have Blue Cross any longer. He asked for documentation, to determine when Blue Cross notified the county it was no longer available.

Another retiree said she called a county office to complain and was told, rather abruptly, the new plan “beats the alternative.”

Michele Ennis, director of Human Resources for the county, said there are bids for the best health care prices every year, to maintain and protect the level of retiree coverage.

“We’re getting very few complaints to my office,” she said.

But county retiree Mary Jane Marine said the cost is too high for her to afford.

A retiree cried as she worried aloud about her husband, who is not insurable because of poor health.

“I have been married 41 years. During the time I served this county my husband was right behind me. It didn’t matter that I had to go back to the Civic Center at 11 o’clock at night. He came with me. He was as much of an employee as I was,” she said, asking the Council for help.

Retiree Jane Grogran said it’s ironic that she used to hire for the County and tell applicants the pay wasn’t high but the benefit package was excellent.

Mary Ashanti, president of the county’s NAACP and a retiree from the state, suggested the idea for a work session.  “You have several people saying, ‘There is something wrong.’ I hope you will be able to help these people out,” she said.

Councilman John Hall told retirees the council is aware of the doughnut hole and administrators are sensitive to retirees’ needs.

“We are far from done on it. We realize the impact and I think it will be quite a ways before we are done with this issue,” he said.

Councilman Marc Kilmer said council members saw a press release about the coverage change, but that  was the first time he heard about it. He said Council members have now begun receiving phone calls.

“It was announced and something, frankly, that we are catching up on the details … I would not be opposed to having a work session on this. We hear what the retirees are saying. We hear what Michelle Ennis is saying. It’s something I am trying to get up to speed on,” Kilmer said.

Councilman Ernie Davis said he is starting to receive phone calls and text messages about it, too.

Councilman Joe Holloway said it was necessary for the county to find a cheaper plan because medical costs jumped $1 million. The new plan will save the county $360,000.

“We had to do this because we don’t have any money but we sit here today and we spend $265,000 on tuition (for Wor-Wic.). So we’re taking away from somebody who’s worked for the county for a number of years, something that was promised to them. You don’t take benefits away from people who have the least voice.

“That’s the people who are here … I was really disturbed the other night at that meeting when I heard those figures. I hope it can be worked out,” Holloway said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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