Hike needed to make county employee insurance healthier
By Michael Lewis
Last week's battle over how much of their own health insurance Miami-Dade County employees will pay didn't put the matter to rest.
John Rivera, police union president, told commissioners the union would take them to court over the decision to pay just 91% of workers' health insurance.
Yet even at 91%, Miami-Dade pays a far higher share than almost anyone.
Given resources, that gap is far too large. Unless the county raises taxes, trims services, cuts salaries or lays off many people, it will have to align health insurance and other benefits with reality.
Commissioners closed their budget gap by raising employees' share of health insurance fees from 5% to 9%. Mayor Carlos Gimenez had sought 10%, but the commission caved in and took 9%, filling the void by swiping $10 million from reserves that cover health claims.
In broad political theater, Mr. Rivera of the police union virtually ran the meeting, showing videos and bringing to the podium supporter after supporter. As he talked of union "concessions," that theater cost taxpayers the $10 million they won't get from employees for the lost 1%.
He won a $10 million concession from commissioners, who should know far better.
The money was not theirs to give. It's ours. Most people outside of government can only gape as county employees say that paying 9% of their own health insurance bill is far too high.
In private enterprise, where unemployment has soared, just having a job and the right to get health insurance with an employer paying anything at all has been a victory in recent years.
Meanwhile, government workers have gotten more and more. In the county last year, most employees got a 3% raise and police 13%. That's nice if we can afford it — but we cannot.
Now government feels the pinch that already pains the rest of us.
At 9%, Miami-Dade employees pay far less of their health insurance than almost anyone.
A US Bureau of Labor Statistics report last July made it clear. The average US worker who gets health insurance through an employer pays 19% of individual coverage — more than double the share a county employee will now pay and nearly four times what county workers paid when the survey was taken. Plus, employees who covered families were paying 30% nationally, not 9%.
Look by category.
In organizations of 500 or more, workers pay 16% of health insurance costs for themselves alone, 26% of family coverage.
In this region, the South Atlantic, workers average 20% for themselves alone, 35% for a family.
Even unionized workers average 11% for their own coverage, 18% for a family.
Don't feel sorry for Miami-Dade workers now being allowed to pay just 9%. Lots of room remains in the future to benefit taxpayers by increasing employees' share and still pay above average.
We won't be alone in balancing benefits between the public and private sectors.
Washington State in 2009 capped the share government would pay for employees at 88%, meaning civil servants pay 12% or more of their health insurance. Workers at the 200 largest employers then were paying 22.6%.
Last year Michigan raised public employees' share of their health insurance costs to 20% and limited how rich those policies could be.
And after the county acted last week, the Pentagon took the first step to raise health insurance fees for both its employees and military retirees.
Meanwhile, the percentage of private sector workers who can get employer health insurance at any cost has been falling.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, 66% of private employers offered health coverage in 1999. That rose to 68% in 2000 and 2001 but since has been falling, down to 60% in 2011.
And those in private employ who can get employer-provided insurance must pay a far larger percentage than the public sector.
For all workers, in fact, an employee's pay-in has grown steadily, from 19.9% in 2000 to 23.3% in 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The figures prove that even at 9% pay-in, Miami-Dade employees are doing better than any other group — other unions, other government groups, other large organizations, other employee groups in the Southeast.
Despite union complaints, county government didn't penalize workers. In reality, the county buckled and penalized taxpayers.
Our mayor and commissioners need the backbone to protect all taxpayers, not just their own employees.
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