As I’ve mentioned in this blog many times, I’m a boat guy. I love being on the water. Whether as a kid sailing with my family, during my time in the Navy, or in the San Juan Islands with my family this summer. While I believe any day on the water is better than any day on land, I also have a serious respect for the sea – including the waters of Puget Sound. The key to a safe and successful voyage is to always have the right sized boat for the trip – especially when you confront a storm.
Recently, my wife Lauren and I, along with Bosco, were out on Eld Inlet in a 10-foot rowboat when the wind picked up – a little over 10 knots. This wind, running across the inlet, caused sharp one-foot waves. Rowing the boat became more challenging and we nearly took water over our transom. Our little dinghy was not the right boat for the conditions.
One the largest storms any of us can encounter is a health-related crisis. When you or a loved one are seriously ill, nothing matters except getting better. Additionally, we all have friends or family that faced an unexpected diagnosis that, save for medical insurance, would have wiped out a person’s finances.
That’s why I feel an obligation to our employees to have a healthcare benefit program that will help them weather the storms that come. The County, too, must anticipate potential clouds on our financial horizon and safeguard the resources provided to us by taxpayers.
I’ve been concerned about the sustainability of our self-insured plan since I arrived at the County. We’ve been analyzing ways to ensure employees have a plan that handles any conditions for quite a while. Simply put, our self-insured plan “boat” just isn’t big enough.
That’s why I have submitted a proposal to the Council for their approval to transition from our current plan to the stronger and more stable state plan, offered to local governments by the Public Employees Benefit Board, or PEBB. To be clear, this proposal only affects those covered by the County’s self-insurance plans, which is less than half of our employees.
PEBB currently has almost 400,000 public employees enrolled in their plans (That’s a big boat!). That size gives them significant buying power in the healthcare market. About 35,000 of them currently reside in Pierce County, so there are well-developed healthcare networks in our region.
There are several reasons to make this switch, with many benefits for employees:
- Lower premium costs
- Greater choice: eight plans to choose from, instead of the current 2
- Proven program management: Regence and Kaiser Permanente
- New life insurance benefits
- Superior benefits options for retirees
One of the features of running a self-funded plan is that the state requires us to maintain large reserves in case of catastrophic claims. With PEBB, Pierce County will no longer need these reserves. While there are some restrictions on what we can do with these reserves, we can apply that balance to “buy down” the amount of the monthly premium you would pay. Today, employees contribute 6% of the cost of the insurance premium but, pending Council approval, we can lower that to 5%. The County would pay the remaining 95%.
As an aside, my family and I were enrolled in the PEBB plan for eight years when I served in the state legislature, so I have first-hand experience with it. I have full confidence in the system and how it is managed. And, I am confident that this transition, which would take effect on January 1, will provide more secure and stable benefits for our employees.
The Council will consider our proposal in the weeks ahead but, in the meantime, you can learn more about the PEBB program here. If you have any specific questions, please email them to PCBenefits@piercecountywa.gov.
As I close, I want to pay tribute to those who rescue mariners – even in the worst possible conditions – our Coast Guard.
Check out this video of them training off Washington’s Cape Disappointment.
Have a great holiday weekend, and thanks for reading,