Shelby County Government Faces Employee Benefits Issue 

The city of Memphis has company when it comes to controversy over employee health-care benefits.

Is Shelby County government on more solid ground than Memphis city government in the way it approaches matters of employee benefits? County Mayor Mark Luttrell insisted it was while making the case for drastic revisions

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in the county's health-care plan for employees at Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission. Unlike the folks "across the street," Luttrell contended at one point in a vigorous and complicated debate, "we've had budget discipline."

Whether that's the case or not, county government is certainly going through the same agonies of retrenchment being experienced by city government, and it is hard to apply the word "discipline" to the discussion that raged in the auditorium of the Vasco Smith County Administration Building. The problem is that, through a combination of revenue shortfalls and obligations under the Affordable Care Act, the county stands to come up some $11 million short in its ability to fund the current employee health-care plan. 

The Luttrell administration proposes several ways of making up the difference, including a series of reductions via "plan design," a serious jump in employees premiums, and the most controversial item — a proposed savings to be achieved by what is being referred to, alternatively, as a "spousal carve-out" or a "spouse-out."

As those abbreviated terms suggest, employees' spouses and other dependents who are covered by other, non-county health-care plans would be dropped from coverage under the county plan. Unsurprisingly, representatives of employee unions have made it clear, beginning with last week's meeting of the commission's general government committee, and again on Monday, that they are aggrieved at the spouse-out proposal, as well as the short interval afforded for public discussion by the administration's relatively late rollout of the proposed new plan. The open enrollment period for employee insurance is scheduled to begin as soon as Monday, November 3rd, lasting through November 21st.

Various commissioners took up the cause of the employees and protested that, as Millington Republican Terry Roland argued, the information made available to the commission, which must confer its approval, had been too recent and too incomplete to evaluate the full consequences of it to county employees. "Nobody knows," he said, but he suspected, "it's going to put somebody in the poorhouse."

In the face of entreaties by the administration and other commissioners to act immediately and not, in Luttrell's words, to "kick the can on down the road," the commission considered various courses, at one point voting to "bifurcate" the spouse-out matter from the rest of the plan — notwithstanding the obvious fact that any changes in the plan's spousal provisions would necessitate other changes, either in further premium increases or in what the administration said would have to be Draconian staff cuts.

In the end, the commission voted for a brief deferral on its decision, resolving to meet again on Thursday this week to hash things out in a combined committee evaluation and general session. Whatever the result of that turns out to be, one thing had been made obvious: Luttrell's protestations aside, county government decisions on health care are no less controversial than those encountered by the city of Memphis. In the current fiscal environment, both major local governments appear to be on somewhat shaky ground.

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