East Baton Rouge city-parish employee Tony Jackson, 54, and his wife rack up hundreds of dollars worth of medical bills every couple months, he said.
Jackson, who has worked for the city-parish for 22 years, has had two strokes and kidney problems. His wife is diabetic and has a pacemaker, he said.
“We have a tendency to go to the doctor quite often,” said Jackson, a senior lab technician at the Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant on River Road.
Jackson said the past few years have been tough on his family since the city-parish has increased health insurance premium costs by nearly 30 percent since 2008.
On Wednesday, the Metro Council will consider another 3 percent increase for health insurance premiums for city-parish employees in 2012.
“It’s $500 a month for our family. That’s a big hit coming from my income, especially since I haven’t had a raise in three years,” Jackson said.
The city-parish offers 3 percent merit pay increases, but employees who have reached the step increase ceiling are ineligible.
Jackson, who makes $43,000 a year, said he stopped receiving merit increases three years ago. He, like many other employees, said he thinks the city-parish should protect employees from further health-care increases or provide across-the-board raises to employees that will make the increases more bearable.
But Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration says insurance costs are ballooning everywhere in the United States and the city-parish is not immune. Holden noted that the health-care insurance premium split is 70 percent for the city-parish and 30 percent for the employees.
“If they feel like they can go anywhere in government or the private sector and not have to pay something for their insurance, then they’re living in a fantasy land,” he said. “We’re in a precarious budget cycle. I can’t absorb costs that may force me to lay people off.”
Earlier this month, Holden’s staff proposed a 5 percent health insurance increase for employees, but that amount was reduced to 3 percent.
John Carpenter, chief administrative officer for Holden, said the total cost for increased premiums amounts to $2.9 million. Of that, he said the city-parish is taking on $2.35 million, and asking that employees take on $550,000.
The city-parish is self-insured, meaning it is responsible for claims which are being projected at more than $58 million.
Critics of the health insurance premium increase have said the remaining $550,000 for employees could be absorbed by the city-parish budget.
“Yes, this by itself seems to be a small number, but remember unlike a lot of governments, we are not having layoffs and we are paying merit increases,” Carpenter said. “The budget, as it will be proposed, has a lot of needs that can’t be met.”
Helene O’Brien, president of the Service Employees International Union which represents about 800 employees from Public Works, Juvenile Services and Headstart, said these increases are most painful to the city-parish’s lowest-paid workers.
The average wage for union members is $13 an hour, O’Brien said, adding that there are about 200 people who make $10 an hour or less.
She also estimated that about one-third of employees no longer receive the 3 percent merit increase every year because they’ve reached the step increase ceiling.
The city-parish employs about 4,000 people and 3,200 participate in the insurance program, said Gwen Hamilton, assistant chief administrative officer.
The council on Oct. 12 was split on health insurance premium costs, with several members wanting the administration to absorb all employee costs, and others who thought the increases were fair.
Holden said the city-parish is exploring other alternatives to reduce long-term costs by helping employees with children take advantage of the state Children’s Health Insurance Program and by investing in a wellness program for employees.