Health Insurance Changes

Yesterday, I received a call from my daughter asking for some advice about health insurance. My wife warned me to be patient with her because I have a tendency to get cranky when I’m asked to try and explain or resolve complicated issues at home. I like to think I do better at work.

My daughter referred me to the infamous Cover Oregon website, where we looked at a variety of plans before I advised her to choose a plan with a lower monthly premium, higher deductibles, and a relatively high out-of-pocket maximum. My daughter’s husband makes a good income, and her family has not been prone to illnesses or serious injury. The coverage offered by the high deductible plan will protect the family against a major event while allowing them to set money aside for their share of routine medical costs. In the meantime, they won’t be paying a high monthly premium to the insurance company for coverage they generally don’t need.

The City’s management team is looking at a similar plan for the people that work here. We’ve found that most of us (83 percent) do not exceed $3,500 a year in expenses and 57 percent do not even reach $1,000. We are, therefore, paying an extremely high monthly premium that offers benefits most of us do not use. I believe we can save the City a significant amount of money and increase benefits to most employees by moving to a plan more like the one I suggested to my daughter.

This idea is not some radical new scheme invented in Albany, but rather a fairly common practice among cities of our size. If the City is able to reduce our premium payments, we can establish health reimbursement accounts (HRA) for employees; and most will realize a greater benefit than what they currently receive. Whatever plan the City offers, including our current ones, will provide more benefits to some and less to others. The weakness of our current offerings is that they provide the greatest benefits to a pretty small group.

The new proposal will not leave anyone unprotected against a significant medical expense, and it will allow people to bank their savings for future needs. I have heard many employees tell me over the years that the only reason they continued to work in their later years was the need for affordable health insurance. A plan that includes an HRA could solve that problem for many, if not most workers.

Finally, the City’s plan is likely to come up against the so-called “Cadillac limits” imposed by the Affordable Care Act in the near future which could increase out-of-pocket costs for all of us. Moving to a higher deductible plan with an HRA should address that problem while providing a better benefit to most of the 1,000 people covered by our current plan.

We are currently discussing the new health insurance proposal with one bargaining unit and will be offering more information as we move toward agreement on a specific plan. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to look into health insurance and make some judgments about what would be best for his/her specific circumstances. I do not believe we will have the option of just continuing our present coverage into the indefinite future.

The Right to Dissent

Disagreeing with the majority is a right we hold dear and one of the many things we will celebrate next week as we observe the Fourth of July. Rights and benefits we take for granted today would not have been possible without strong disagreement in the past. Slavery, women’s suffrage, religious freedom, and the right to unionize are just a few of the ideas that people fought and, in many cases, died to defend or eliminate.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court established the right of same-sex couples to marry, validating what many states had already decided in recent years. I am sure the debate is not over, but the law is settled. What began as a concern of a minority of citizens a relatively short time ago now appears to be the prevailing national sentiment.

The right to dissent is not confined to issues of national importance. We frequently hear complaints from citizens about a broad range of issues that include everything from high weeds to the neighbors’ barking dog. More importantly, nearly all of our municipal laws are subject to criticism or disagreement over time. Our Council listens to these concerns and routinely makes changes in an effort to better serve the needs of the community and the desires of citizens. Sometimes these disagreements are unpleasant and personal, but they generally serve an important purpose. Our ability to voice our concerns without fear of retribution is important to the health of our city.

I believe the same principle is true for the City of Albany as an organization. I don’t think any of us enjoy being criticized or second-guessed, but we have some obligation to listen carefully and tolerate opposing points of view. Past criticism has led to a number of changes that have strengthened the organization and made it more productive. The old adage about being hard on the problem and soft on the person is generally a better path toward resolving the problem than a personal attack.

The City’s values haven’t changed much in the past decade, and I think those we have adopted still do a good job of explaining what’s important to us. Our policies and practices that reflect those values do change periodically in recognition of changing circumstances. Greater recognition of minority rights is one area where I believe we will continue to see needed change in the years ahead. I will probably be among the majority who will not agree with every new idea that’s proposed, but I will do my best to respect new proposals and look beyond my own prejudices before making judgments.

Dissent is a necessary part of a healthy society or organization, as it helps us to adapt to what’s happening in the world around us. The process of resolving disagreement is, unfortunately, often as difficult as it is valuable.

Our Past and Our Future

Last week, I wrote about my then upcoming vacation in Neola, Iowa. It turns out that my family reunion was really out in the country and not all that close to Neola. I did get the opportunity, however, to spend a fair amount of time visiting a number of small towns in Iowa and Nebraska as we tried to find information about our family.

I realize most people don’t spend their vacations sitting in libraries looking at local history books or tramping through cemeteries searching for their ancestors’ graves; so I assume I have seen more of these places than the average person. I learned many things on this trip, but something that stood out was the number and quality of libraries and cemeteries in very small communities in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. My favorite was the library in Central City, Nebraska, where we looked up information about my great-grandfather, who homesteaded there in the 1870s. The library, built in 1991, was attractive, well-maintained, staffed by friendly people, and heavily used. We found similar libraries in Harlan and the much larger city of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The number, size, and quality of these libraries seemed disproportionate to the wealth of the communities where they are located.

We visited many small towns, and I saw evidence of great community pride in most of them. My great-grandparents are buried in a beautiful cemetery in Shelby, Iowa; and one of my great aunts is buried in an equally nice graveyard in Newmans Grove, Nebraska. The message I received in these places was people here care about their past and care about their future. The message was reinforced every time we passed beautiful school buildings and amazing, historic government buildings. The county courthouse in Merrick County, Nebraska, was built in 1912; and the people inside showed the same pride in their work that was evident in the outward appearance of the historic building.

I think a visitor to Albany would find many of the same things I saw in my brief journey in the Midwest. People here, like people in Central City, care about their town and are willing to keep investing in the facilities that are an important part of community life. Swimming pools, libraries, parks, city halls, schools, fire stations, and cemeteries say something about what is important to us. They send a message whether we intend them to or not.

Work is underway at South Albany to replace the building that recently burned, and a new all-weather surface in being installed at West Albany to match the one built at South last year. Design work for our new police and fire stations is in process, and the bond sales to finance the new buildings will take place soon. Our annual cemetery tour will take place in July, and I will be among the presenters to talk about my ancestors at the site where they are buried. Our willingness to keep investing in these places says something important about who we are and what we believe. I believe the connection between our past and our future is worth the investment and is a necessary component of a healthy community.