When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled his 2018 budget Friday, a key stumbling block stood out. Health care spending is out of control, and the fact that most county employees don’t pay for any part of it is just a small piece of the problem.
In 2012, the county spent $316 million on employee and retiree health care. The 2018 budget projects the cost at $447 million. Suffolk is seeing per-capita increases in health care spending of about 8 percent annually, twice the regional average. Bellone is addressing part of the problem in the budget, which calls for $30 million in health care savings. He wants employees hired before 2013 to pay 15 percent of their premiums, just as newer workers do. The employee cost would be $1,500 for an individual, and $3,154 for a family.
Union heads say they are willing to deal, likely in exchange for an extension of the health care pact past the current end date of December 2020. So why would labor leaders take that deal? Because the best thing about this health care plan isn’t the lack of employee contributions, it’s the benefit structure.
Suffolk County employees have no deductibles in their health network, even for major surgery and emergency room visits, and they enjoy laughably low copays: $25 for an MRI, for instance, and the same for a CT scan. Nationally, cost increases for health care have slowed, in part because of private-sector strategies like health savings accounts, and higher deductibles and copays. The county needs the same types of strategies.
Having workers contribute 15 percent of their premiums would be better than nothing. But if costs rise 8 percent a year, the county will be back where it started in two years. Premium contributions, while helpful, are just a Band-Aid.