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Milwaukee County Board panel sidetracks proposal to consider dropping health insurance [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

By Steve Schultze, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 01--Milwaukee County supervisors Thursday sidetracked a request for a staff report on the potential for savings if the county dropped its employee health insurance and instead encouraged workers to obtain their own coverage under provisions of the new federal health care law.

In calling for the study, Supervisor Deanna Alexander noted the county faces a long-term funding gap and a looming crisis in transportation funding. She said the county could save up to $103.5 million in health insurance costs if it stopped providing health insurance and paid the $2,000 per employee penalty that would be assessed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Employees could get their own insurance through exchanges required under the law, where costs might be cheaper, Alexander's proposal said. Larger risk pools and subsidized premiums for families with up to $88,200 in income available under the law make the study of the shift worthwhile, Alexander said.

The county's federal penalty for not providing health insurance to its 4,400 employees would come to about $7.1 million, a fraction of the $110.6 million the county has budgeted for health care this year. Some portion of the savings might be available to "support other health programs," Alexander said.

While a work group of county officials may study the issue of potential impacts of the federal health law -- often called Obamacare -- it would help to require a timely review so the county can make a decision before 2014, when more provisions of the law kick in, Alexander said.

"There's no way I'm voting for that," said Supervisor Theo Lipscomb. He called the proposal a "sham" and said the savings claims were based on denying employees health benefits. Doing that would violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the new federal law, Lipscomb said.

Other supervisors faulted Alexander for not briefing supervisors in advance and called her study proposal premature.

The County Board's finance committee voted 8-1 for an indefinite delay on the issue. Alexander said that likely kills it, though the county work group on health insurance is expected to review the impact of Obamacare on the county without the Alexander mandate.

Matt Hanchek, the county's employee benefits manager, said it might be worthwhile for the county to consider "steering some people to the exchanges, perhaps with some county support."

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He said he wasn't endorsing the shift, but that it was "absolutely appropriate and prudent to study it."

The finance panel also recommended denying a request by Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. to add two captains to help supervise the county jail. Sheriff's Inspector Richard Schmidt said the jobs would be filled only if the oversight of the County Correctional Facility-South in Franklin is removed from the sheriff.

Clarke has sued the county in an effort to stop that change.

The extra captains would be needed because the staffs for the two lockups are now combined. The 2013 county budget provided for four captains at the jail, but six are needed, Schmidt said.

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(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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