Lake County Council strikes a bargain on health insurance

2012-11-08T19:00:00Z 2012-11-08T21:16:07Z Lake County Council strikes a bargain on health insuranceBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
November 08, 2012 7:00 pm  • 

CROWN POINT | Lake County Council members announced they will vote Tuesday for an overhaul of county government's troubled health insurance plan.

Council members, speaking at a workshop meeting Thursday, said they will continue generous health benefits to the county's 1,679 full-time employees, but not 32 employees who have been covered despite working fewer than 36 hours a week.

Most of those part-time employees are attorneys employed by four judges in Lake Superior Court County Division as public defenders. At public expense, they represent indigent people charged with minor criminal offenses.

Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said the council wants to retain those attorneys, so they will receive a cash stipend to help them purchase a private insurance plan.

Some public defenders and judges expressed concern earlier that eliminating insurance benefits would force veteran lawyers to leave the defender staff. They would be replaced by less experienced lawyers who may generate more jury trials, more appeals and longer jail stays — all at greater public expense.

However, council members said they have forged a consensus with the courts over months of negotiations by agreeing to increase the public defenders' salaries, which now range between $8,500 and $21,750 a year. They would now be paid $28,500 annually.

Attorneys defending the County Council, Board of Commissioners and other elected officials against civil lawsuits will individually negotiate future salaries to compensate for the loss of health insurance benefits.

The 23 public defenders representing defendants charged in Lake Criminal Court with more serious crimes will retain their health insurance benefits.

There are no plans to offer such an incentive to the five members of the Lake County election board, who were eligible for the insurance plan. None of the board members was taking the benefit, council members said.

The council hopes to shore up a health insurance plan costing taxpayers $30 million a year. Rising medical costs have been exhausting a reserve fund set aside for expected medical cost spikes.

Larry Blanchard, who administers the county's self-insurance plan, said he couldn't put a figure on the immediate savings, but cutting down the number of people who can file claims represents significant future cost reduction.

Blanchard said the council is increasing that reserve fund by an additional $3.5 million a year.

Council members said they rejected the idea of getting the county out of the self-insurance business and hiring a private insurance vendor.

County officials say the generous benefit plan is needed to retain employees, many of whom haven't receive pay increases in years. The changes will go into effect by April 1.

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