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Benefit or Burden- Government health benefits are not what they used to be

Paul Walsh, the director of parks and recreation for Reynoldsburg, says the city's current health insurance plan is attractive to prospective employees .

"We've had employees that have left the city to go to private sector and returned to city one reason good health care," said Walsh

The city of Reynoldsburg has about 130 full time workers on its payroll. For the rest of this year, employees are covered by a traditional health plan. The employee pays 7% or $67 per month for family coverage. Mayor Bob McPherson calls it the Cadillac of health care plans. But the Cadillac has become too expensive for the city to drive

"We were averaging $1,000/mo per employee for the family plan," said McPherson.

Facing the possibility of a double-digit increase for 2008, the city decided to go a different route.

Next year, Reynoldsburg will try a new health care plan that has been around for only a couple of years. The main feature of the plan is a health savings account. The city of Reynoldsburg will put $4,000 dollars in an account for each employee with family coverage. The worker uses that money to pay for most medical costs including prescriptions. The goal is to try to get workers to take more responsibility for their health care costs and do more to keep a lid on those costs.

"We are committed to H.S.A. because we feel it is a superior plan. It provides more coverage and gives the employee ownership. And I think when you give an employee ownership, perhaps they're going to be more frugal in how they spend their money", said McPherson.

Director of parks and recreation Paul Walsh see an advantage in personally paying medical bills,"We've pretty much been used to being taken care of in the past. Bills go to ins co., ins co., pays them. Price doesn't seem to matter. It's gonna matter more now. It's our money. I can save money now."

Under the Health Savings Account, workers still pay a monthly premium. And that $4,000 the city puts in the health savings account.. in reality, it is a deductible. There is no guarantee that Reynoldsburg will continue to cover the full cost of the deductible. And, if the city decides to pay a smaller portion- or none - of the deductible, the worker will have to pay as much as four thousand dollars out of pocket before the plan's coverage kicks in.

Ohio State University Health Economist Jeff Caswell says since the H.S.A. is so new, there is no standard yet for how much an employer and an employee pay of the high deductible

"I think employers are experimenting with this to see whether putting money in an H.S.A turns out to save them money,"said Caswell.

Caswell says the tax-advantaged Health Savings Accounts favor healthier and wealthier employees. He says H.S.A's are a disadvantage for people with chronic illnesses. And if an employer is not paying the full deductible, such accounts could be a burden for low income people.

He also raises questions about the basic idea behind Health Savings Accounts - the creation of health care shoppers. Caswell doubts that enough comparative information on services and providers is available to help consumers make critical choices,"I think we're going to see a lot less of this buying health care like you buy pizza than the design of these programs implies." Even though the jury is still out on Health Savings Accounts, more alternatives to traditional health coverage can be expected as employers large and small look for ways to at least hold the line on health costs. Fraternal Order of Police Attorney Bob Sauter negotiates contracts for Capital City Lodge 9 in Reynoldsburg and other central Ohio cities and townships. He says health insurance has moved to near the top of the bargaining agenda "We're moving away from what is simply a network kind of coverage traditional plans," Sauter observed.

Half of Reynoldsburg's employees are police officers and Officer Shane Mauger has negotiated labor contracts for them for more than a decade. He sums up of the thoughts of many government workers when he talks about officers' views of Reynoldsburg's new health plan, "The only concern the membership has now: what's going to happen in the next contract how much money will we have to come up with that's in the future that's inevitable."

Reynoldsburg and a few other smaller government entities in central Ohio are looking to Health Savings Accounts and other alternative types of insurance plans to hold down costs. But the larger government entities - including the city of Columbus and the state of Ohio - still use traditional types of medical coverage.

Regardless of the type of insurance plan, one thing is certain for government employees: constant reminders to stay healthy. Quoting from the state of Ohio's Benefits Guide for 2007: you'll be hearing a lot more about taking charge of your health and living well .