ALBANY ALBANY — Less than two years ago, the Dougherty County Commission was in the midst of an employee health care crisis that threatened to deplete the county’s reserve funds and put its very financial future in jeopardy.
After making some tough decisions that made life tougher for its employees, the county has righted the ship, according to its health analyst, so much so that the county now finds itself 14 percent in the black.
“Your transformation from where you were just two years ago is pretty amazing,” Spencer Allen, of Wells Fargo, told the commission Monday morning. “In most places, things are in the red when we talk about plan spend. You guys are in the black.”
How the county went from upside down by nearly $2.5 million to up by $1.5 million is a story that is a tough one for both commissioners and county employees to hear, but the decisions made are ones Chairman Jeff Sinyard says had to be made to ensure that the county stayed solvent.
“That was a tough time and we had to make some tough decisions to change the plans and go through the dependent audit, but we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
The savings are directly attributable to a series of decisions made by the commission to reduce spending and redesign plans offered by the county, Allen said.
A dependent eligibility audit booted 65 people who didn’t meet existing eligibility requirements but were getting benefits off the plan. The county also changed the out-of-pocket amounts employees had to pay for certain types of coverages.
And the county’s large, catastrophic claims — which had totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars annually — were down almost 40 percent, something that Sinyard attributes to employees getting better preventative care.
“Our employees are getting things like diabetes and high blood pressure dealt with before they become strokes or heart attacks or certain kinds of cancers,” the commission chairman said. “That reduces the number of people who end up having to spend weeks or even months in the intensive care unit.”
Allen and Sinyard also credited the commission’s decision to use a health care counseling service or hotline that allows employees with questions about the plans, medical care or doctor referrals for some of the cost savings.
Allen said the service had 2,500 encounters with Dougherty County’s 450 employees, meaning that many employees were calling the hotline multiple times.
Monday’s good savings news doesn’t mean the county will be immune from increasing health care costs that remain a vexing issue for local governments nationwide.
In the upcoming year, Allen said that Wells Fargo is predicting the county will spend 8 percent more on health care services than this year, or nearly $500,000.
The group is also predicting that the county vs. employee split of health care costs will shift back from its current status of 74 percent paid by county and 26 percent paid by employees to 76 percent paid by the county and 24 percent paid by employees.
The commission also voted unanimously Monday in a special called meeting to amend the county’s health care plan to allow obstetricians and gynecologists to be considered family practice doctors for purposes of coverage in the plan. Employees will still have to pay a specialist level co-pay if they use an OB-GYN, Allen said.