Beaufort County grapples with rising health insurance costs

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comApril 6, 2014 

Beaufort County is facing nearly $2 million in additional health care costs next year and might switch insurance providers to lessen the blow.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina provides primary health coverage to more than 1,100 county employees.

Because of changes in the insurance market with the rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act, costs are expected to rise from about $10.8 million this year to more than $12.5 million next year with Blue Cross Blue Shield, county administrator Gary Kubic said.

The county is considering a switch to Cigna to reduce those costs, Kubic said.

Prices for Cigna plans also are rising, but not as much, according to county health insurance consultant Carla Hartsoe, who presented the plans to County Council's Finance Committee on March 27.

Cigna plans would cost about $12.3 million each year, she said.

The Cigna basic and premium offerings would almost mirror Blue Cross Blue Shield benefits and costs, Hartsoe added. Additionally, almost all of the 68 providers in Blue Cross Blue Shield's network are in Cigna's network, according to county director of employee services Suzanne Gregory. Only Naval Hospital Beaufort and Select Laboratories offices, which process certain medical tests for some rural practices, are considered out-of-network under Cigna, Hartsoe said.

The primary difference would be that out-of-pocket costs with Blue Cross Blue Shield would rise because the company is trying to offset a rule in the Affordable Care Act that says deductibles and copayments count toward the policyholder's maximum out-of-pocket costs, Hartsoe said.

Cigna has not changed its maximum out-of-pocket costs, so employees will save money when they make claims, she said.

However, there are lingering questions about Cigna's customer service, council members Laura Von Harten and Steve Fobes said.

"My experience with Cigna was abhorrent," Fobes said. He said that in 2012 and 2013, he had difficulties using his Cigna insurance to pay medical bills incurred while he was living in Colorado.

"I'm concerned with what I've heard about customer service and patient satisfaction," Von Harten said. "Sometimes the cheapest choice is not always the best choice."

But all insurance companies are difficult to deal with, so anecdotes should not be a deal breaker, Kubic and Councilman Rick Caporale said.

The full County Council will consider the switch April 14. If approved, the county would have an enrollment period in May, and the new plans would take effect in July, Kubic said.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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