Council on Aging eliminates health insurance benefit

ALBANY, Ga. — The SOWEGA Council on Aging, facing a 30 percent increase in health insurance rates for its employees and saddled with a recent $386,534 budget cut, has stopped providing health insurance for its employees.

Director Kay Hind said the benefits ended Thursday for the 29 employees who elected to participate in the insurance program.

“We got a $386,534 cut in our funding that went into effect July 1,” said Hind.

“The reason for that cut in our federal and state funding was the census. When the census came out, we got the biggest cut in the state of Georgia.”

Hind said the agency endured a 25 percent increase in health insurance coverage last year from Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

That raised the monthly premium to $800 a month, she said. The council paid $534 of that total, and the employee paid $266 of the premium, she said.

“We were already struggling with these budget cuts when in the middle of July we received notice that Blue Cross/Blue Shield was going up 30 percent more. If we had taken the increase for those 29 people, it would have taken $268,294 out of our budget.”

Hind said she looked at the possibility of finding another insurance provider, but was unable to come up with an affordable plan given the financial setbacks.

“This has been just a very disappointing thing,” she said, “and we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Hind said the Council on Aging had not replaced employees who have left the agency in the past six months in preparation for the budget crisis.

The agency has about 130 employees, 90 of them full-time, and provides a variety of services to the elderly in a 14-county area. A key component is serving meals to the elderly at service centers and through its Meals on Wheels program.

Hind said the Council on Aging has agreed to pay the current employer share of the premiums through the end of the year for those who anticipate participating in the federal coverage through the federal Affordable Care Act.

This would not include the additional 30 percent increase, she said.

Hind said a handful of the 29 employees impacted were able to obtain Medicare coverage. Some were able to obtain private insurance coverage, she said.

“We’re still talking about cutting some services, and some staff, but I am trying to do everything I can to not cut the people we are here to serve,” said Hind, who said she made the decision after conferring with other members of the administrative staff.

Hind said the cuts come as the Council on Aging is in the final stages of a major construction project — a new headquarters building in Albany at the site of the former Byne church and school near Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.

“If I had known the budget would be going through this, we would not be building,” Hind said. “This started in 2007, and we’re within 20 percent of completing this building. ... We can’t stop at this point.”

Hind noted that money used in the construction of the facility could not have been used to solve the agency’s budget crisis, continue insurance or replace any cuts in operating funds.

“We had SPLOST money, HUD money and capital funding through donations,” she said. “I don’t like this and I don’t want people talking about it when they don’t understand.”

“We’re still talking about cutting some services, some staff,” Hind said. “I’ll do everything I can not to cut the people we are here to serve.”