The Forsyth County commission has given initial approval to some changes in health care eligibility that could benefit outgoing elected officials and increase costs to the county.
Like several other metro Atlanta area counties, Forsyth allows officials to continue receiving health care benefits after they’ve left office.
The current rule allows those 14 elected positions to continue on the county’s plan at employee rates for one year after leaving office if they aren’t eligible for Medicare or another plan, said Pat Carson, county personnel services director.
If the proposed changes receive final approval Oct. 6, elected officials could stay on the county’s plan at employee rates for one year for each served in office, assuming at least one full term was completed.
After that, former officials could continue on the county plan at the raised retiree rates until becoming eligible for another plan or Medicare, which kicks in at age 65.
Board members voted 4-1, with Commissioner Jim Boff opposed, to adopt those changes at a Tuesday work session. The vote was non-binding.
Boff had previously introduced two separate amendments, both of which failed Tuesday, that would have removed the "until becoming eligible for Medicare" clause, as well as a clause that prevented grandfathering in former elected officials.
The issue will come up for another vote at next week’s regular meeting.
Elected officials include the commissioners, sheriff, clerk of court, tax commissioner, coroner, solicitor general, probate judge, chief magistrate and two state court judges.
Citing privacy concerns, Carson declined to release specifics on coverage after the meeting. She did say, however, that 12 of the 14 officials are currently enrolled in the county’s plan.
During the meeting Tuesday, Carson explained to the commission that the new policy would be more similar to what employees receive.
"The only difference is that when an employee leaves, they’re eligible for retiree rates, which are a little bit higher than the active employee rates," she said. "This first starts where you get years of service at the active employee rates."
Employees must also be 60 and older with at least five years of service, or age plus years of service must equal 75, Carson said.
If Medicare eligible, departing employees can’t receive retiree rates.
"If you’re an elected official, you could be any age and have one term of office and now be eligible [for retiree rates]," she said after the meeting.
To estimate the cost to the county, Carson considered the six elected officials who have left office since the start of 2009.
Of those, three were eligible to receive benefits from the county. Under the current one-year policy, the cost to the county to provide benefits was about $28,000, Carson said.
If the new plan were approved, the county could have spent up to about $280,000 to provide benefits if those three employees did not go on another plan until reaching Medicare age.
"It’s hard to predict a cost of where will health care be in 20 years," she said. "This cost estimate is based upon the current average cost for what it costs the county for an employee on our plan."
Carson said the county could also have multiple years of departed elected officials receiving benefits, which would compound the costs.
In an informal survey of 14 other counties, Carson found that a majority followed the model where officials received the same benefits as employees, with a credit for each year in office at retiree rates.
Sheriff Ted Paxton said he hadn’t been contacted about the commission’s talk on extending the coverage for all elected officials after leaving office.
"It doesn’t matter to me personally because I don’t participate in the county’s health care plan," Paxton said.
Former Commissioner Charles Laughinghouse, who left the county plan after his term expired, said he felt the county’s current plan of allowing benefits one year after leaving is "a fair compromise."
"You get the benefit of the insurance while in office," Laughinghouse said. "Let’s face it, they want to give themselves insurance benefits."
With the cost of health care outside of the plan, he said it’s no surprise someone would want to do that.
Since commissioners now draw a salary, like many county employees, Laughinghouse said they shouldn’t receive anything different than what employees get.
The commission would get the benefit of active employee rates after office and retiree rates without meeting the criteria that employees face.
Commissioners discussed the possibility of adding a plan that’s supplemental to Medicare, but chose to wait on that decision since employees do not currently have that option.
Carson said with the recent switch to a new health care provider, she expects to ask them to look at options for such a plan.
"I feel we are in gross need of a supplemental Medicare plan for employees," she said.