Meridian Star

Local News

September 20, 2013

Mayor to Council: Reconsider health insurance, salaries

MERIDIAN —     The mayor is hoping the Meridian City Council will revisit its decisions to keep the city's current health insurance policy and to reduce some of the salaries he had offered city department heads.

    At a press conference on Thursday, Mayor Percy Bland said he wants to talk to the council to see if they will reconsider the issues.

    Bland's administration recently asked Benefits Management Group, which handles the city's health insurance, to see if it could get a plan with a better rate. City employees and their families are currently covered by Fox-Everett insurance. BMH presented an offer from United Healthcare that they said would save the city approximately $280,000. That savings was after Fox-Everett offered to cut its rate by $140,000, Bland said.

    But in a vote on Tuesday, the council decided 4-1 against changing companies, saying there wasn't enough time to change 550 city employees' insurance policies to another company by Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. Others said that city employees were comfortable with the current plan.

    "These decisions are tough to make," Bland said, "but when you're making decisions, as leaders, for everyone; we can't make personal decisions based on feelings when there is a quarter of a million dollars on the table to be saved."

    He said there is still time, although it's a short window of opportunity, to change policies before Oct. 1. As late as Thursday, Bland received a letter from United Healthcare saying that the company could still make the switch this month.

    "United Healthcare's cost, because of the negotiated prices they have had with hospitals, physicians, and physician networks across the state of Mississippi, is the best price for the city of Meridian," Bland said. "The difference between United and Fox-Everett is 16 percent."

    Bland said that because the city is a self-funded entity, it only pays for claims and does not pay a monthly premium. In theory, he said, if no one on the city's policy was to seek medical treatment for a month, the city would pay nothing that month.

    Bland noted that the city does pay premiums for a re-insurance policy, which is for claims that exceed $125,000.

    "The reason United Healthcare is a better choice for us right now is because of the discount savings that we will have for our employees that we can pass on to the citizens of this city," Bland said. "There will be other things that come up over the course of this year that we will need those resources to do."

    Bland said that health care costs are going to continue to rise and the city should save money if it can.

    "Our claim history keeps going up. As our claims go up, that 16 percent difference; we're going to see it in the reduction in price than what we paid," Bland said.

    United would also communicate with employees on preventive health matters and on using the Teladoc system, which allows a person to speak with a doctor or nurse on the telephone instead of having to go an emergency room for a non-emergency event.

    In voting on the health insurance on Tuesday, the council did agree to add Teladoc to the city's existing plan.    

    "The reason that we think that it is in the best interest of the citizens and our employees to go with this carrier is because they provided the best plan at the best price," Bland said.

    Whatever the council decides, Bland said the health insurance debate is not related to the department head salary debate.

    "That money does not have to be used for pay increases for any of the department heads. This money is just to be passed on to the citizens of the city," Bland said. "It's not being set aside for any differences so that department heads can be. That is a totally separate issue."

    On that issue, Bland said he hopes to get the council to talk with him about each department head and discuss their backgrounds and job skills so they know why he recommended the salaries at the level he proposed. Bland said he believes the city has to pay the market demands of people in top leadership roles.

    "I believe that the salaries in place were fair. If the council disagrees that we were way off, I just want to have conversations with them person by person to discuss what they think is fair," Bland said.

    "If things stay the same, things stay the same. I don't have any plans right now to look at vetoing those salaries but I want to talk to the City Council to see if we can reach some clarity and person by person, evaluate each of those salaries separately."

    He said department heads are going to be very important to the progress of this city.

    "We have the right people and the right resources in places to make it better for everyone in this city," Bland said.

    Bland said within the context of a $50 million budget, the savings to the city of about $40,000 on department head salaries is not going to affect the budget one way or the other.

    "We just don't want it to interrupt any momentum because people are still committed to us, but it sends the wrong message as we are doing the some of the things we are doing from top to bottom. We want to take care of all of our employees," Bland said. "We want to recruit the best people, we want to pay them and then we want to stand behind them and give them all the tools and all the resources to lead their departments."

    Despite the setbacks, Bland and his chief administrative officer, are optimistic about the future of the city and said they were happy they were able to give the council a balanced budget with no tax increase.

    "We've just passed the 75-day mark since the inauguration on July 1," Goldacker said. "There has been a tidal wave of change. We're getting feedback from all levels, when it comes to public works, the police department, the fire department...that's going to continue. The momentum is building and it's getting better."

    As of late Thursday afternoon, a special called meeting had not yet been scheduled.

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