Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in a State of the County message Thursday night called employee health insurance costs Suffolk’s “biggest financial issue,” saying the price tag has climbed by $64 million — 16 percent — in the past two years.
In an address at Newfield High School in Selden, Bellone said health care expenses now represent 15 percent of the total county budget.
Since 2013, major medical, prescription and hospital costs have risen by more than 40 percent, he said.
“These costs are unsustainable,” Bellone told an audience of nearly 450. “That is why the county will issue a request for proposals to hire an expert to evaluate the county’s current self-insurance model.”
He said the expert “will identify the main reasons for the increasing health care costs by component.”
In reaction, presiding officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copaigue) said “I think it will help to have an outside analysis on what’s driving up costs.”
County officials projected budget savings of $23.7 million in 2017 based on projected union health concessions, and budgeted $30 million in similar savings this year.
However, talks between Bellone and unions have yet to yield any agreement on givebacks or employee cost sharing on premiums, beyond the 2013 law requiring new hires to pay 15 percent of premium costs. Bellone voluntarily pays 15 percent of his health premium.
Gregory said that “talks are going slower than some people might want but they are still talking.”
Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk PBA president, said he’s “always supportive” of efforts to find answers to keep health costs sustainable and hopes consultants can make recommendations before Bellone presents his proposed 2019 budget in September.
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), GOP caucus leader, said health insurance is one of many costs for which Bellone has failed to budget properly.
“The fact is the budget that Mr. Bellone presents each year is anything but balanced,” Cilmi said in a videotaped response. “It’s filled with phantom revenues and underestimated expenses.”
Cilmi also said Bellone has “a lot of big ideas . . . stadiums, underground roads with driverless cars, bicycle sharing . . . But just like at home, you have to fix the toilet . . . before you worry about a new boat.”
On the plus side financially, Bellone said county sales tax is on the rebound, growing by 5.3 percent so far this year, or $17 million, compared with 2017.
He also noted that in April, the median price of homes sold in Suffolk rose by 7 percent compared with a year earlier.
Bellone said the county, which pays more than $1 billion for goods and services annually, will hold a conference July 24 with local governments and experts on how to improve procurement.
On the economic development front, Bellone touted Port Jefferson’s Uptown Funk, a new 72-unit development project.
He cited a recent study by Suffolk and Islip Town of ways to create better connections between the Long Island Rail Road and Long Island MacArthur Airport.
Bellone also touted an agreement with Zagster, a bicycle ride-sharing company to provide “last mile” connections between train stations and popular local destinations.
In his speech, Bellone called Suffolk “one of the safest counties in America” with crime “at historic lows.”
He said the county is working proactively to combat criminal gangs and opioids and prevent school shooting incidents.
Bellone cited police drills with local school administrators in 45 districts, a new system of dedicated phone lines connecting schools directly to 911, and a setup that allows schools to connect their security cameras directly to county police.
“No child should have to stand in a classroom and think: Where is the best place to avoid being shot,” Bellone said.