For several years now, skyrocketing healthcare rates have challenged Lewis County officials as they try to balance the county budget with revenues climbing at a much slower rate. Finally, though, relief may be in sight, as projected rate increases for 2020 appear to be much more manageable.
“We’re just grateful to have a break in our insurance rates this year,” said county commissioner Bobby Jackson. “That’s going to help us tremendously in our budgeting. … That’s going to hopefully be a significant savings for us this year.”
Between 2017 and 2019, Lewis County’s spending on medical plans spiked nearly 23 percent — an increase of more than $1.5 million. Thanks to coverage shifts made by the county, and better rates from its providers, next year’s increases will be much more slight.
“It’s a really nice surprise to see those level off a bit, because we’ve seen major increases in health insurance in the last 10 years,” said Budget Manager Becky Butler. “These are definitely the lowest increases I’ve seen in a very long time.”
On Monday, Jackson told his fellow commissioners that rates from the Washington Counties Insurance Fund — which serves 91 county employees — were showing favorable projections for 2020. For the vast majority of employees covered through WCIF, rates will be going up a mere .04 percent.
That’s significant because massive spikes in WCIF’s coverage costs triggered budget issues at the county in recent years. That program was on an unsustainable path, Jackson said, with rate hikes as high as 70 percent looming. Amid that crisis, Lewis County switched many of its employee groups over to the Public Employees Benefits Board, which covers a majority of the county’s employees, 277 in all.
Shifts like that have allowed WCIF to get back on track, Jackson said.
“We were concerned that it was going to take us two or three years to recover from that,” he said. “As it turned out, within a year, once those groups were out, things began to turn around quite a bit. They turned around a lot quicker than we anticipated.”
Meanwhile, the PEBB insurance that now covers most county employees is anticipated to go up about 3 percent, Butler said, a manageable number. The official rate will come out in September. Another 167 county employees are covered through Teamsters, which Butler said has not seen increases like other insurance providers.
“This is the best place we’ve been in awhile,” Jackson said. “It is good news. We were pretty excited about that.”
Butler noted that as insurance rates have leveled off, the risk pool for the county’s general liability coverage has climbed steeply.
“We’ve got one up, one down,” she said.