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Gainesville employees may soon pay health insurance premiums

POSTED: June 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.

If the Gainesville City Council approves a new health insurance plan for city employees on Tuesday, city employees will do something they have never done before — help pay their premiums.

City employees could be coughing up $40 a month from their paychecks to help the city pay for their health insurance premiums. For the city, the change is "historic," said the city’s Human Resources Director Joan Sheffield.

And it was bound to happen.

All across the country, companies are talking about rising health insurance costs. And after Gainesville’s 734 city-paid employees filed 1,504 health insurance claims last year, City Manager Bryan Shuler started warning council members as early as February that the cost of health insurance was one of the biggest issues the city would face in its budgeting decisions.

For months, city officials have been looking for ways to mitigate a 55 percent increase in health insurance costs.

Along with the never-before-seen premiums, the city’s 734 employees also may get to see a doctor for free. The insurance program, recommended to the council on Thursday by Sheffield and Rob Fowler, executive vice president of Turner, Wood and Smith Insurance, would include the addition of an on-site medical clinic where city employees would be able to see a doctor and receive certain prescription medications for free.

Sheffield wants the council’s blessing to contract with CareHere, a Tennessee-based company that manages about 60 on-site clinics for different employers across the country, and renovate the city’s A-1 Building, which once housed the Department of Labor and StorkGamco, into a City Wellness Center and Clinic. If approved, the clinic could provide a wide range of services to city employees as early as September.

"(Employees can come for) basically anything, whether they’re sick or whether they need an annual physical," Sheffield said. "We’ll be able to do pulmonary function tests, Pap exams, we’ll be able to conduct some preliminary diagnoses for certain problems, but then certainly there will be referral for something the clinic cannot accommodate."

And employees who need certain prescription drugs — antibiotics, antihistamines, antidepressants and medicines to treat high blood pressure, cholesterol, acid reflux and diabetes — can get them for free at the City Wellness Center.

CareHere, if chosen as the clinic manager, would be responsible for hiring physicians and other staff needed for the clinic, and Sheffield told the council the clinic will help the city save money on insurance costs.

"By implementing the clinic, if employees are as excited about it as we are and want to go, yeah, they’re going to save money and yes, the city will save money as well," Sheffield said. "It’s win-win for everyone."

City officials estimate that the clinic will cost Gainesville $446,010 to get started, but will save the city $181,300 in health care and lost-time costs in its first year.

"I think we’ve all come to the conclusion that we’re never going to get our arms around insurance costs unless we get our arms better around health care costs," Shuler said.

Other proposed changes, if approved, mean that employees hired after July 1 will no longer automatically receive short-term disability benefits from the city in their first year of employment and the city’s insurance provider will determine who qualifies for short-term disability instead of the city’s Human Resources department.

Employees hired before July can receive short-term disability benefits from the city, but those hired after July 1 will have to purchase that benefit on their own if they want it in their first year

"We really did a lot of soul searching in terms of how to rate the plan and place the premiums correctly," Sheffield said.



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