AG’s insurance opinion gives municipalities options

SHERIDAN — A recent opinion issued by the state attorney general gives local governments the option of enrolling in the state’s employee health insurance plan, giving governments another option to consider when weighing the benefits they offer their employees.

According to the opinion, the term “political subdivision” includes cities, towns and counties and those entities are therefore allowed to join the state insurance program. That gives municipal governments the same right to participate in the state health insurance plan as Wyoming school districts. Despite having that option though, only Natrona County’s school district currently participates in the state plan.

During the Wyoming Association of Municipalities Legislative Leadership Committee meeting last week, Executive Director J. David Fraser said WAM has pushed the state to allow municipal governments on the state plan. While the opinion from the AG’s office settles the matter for now, legislative action could complicate the issue again.

By the time the decision was issued, most municipal governments were already well into the process of renewing their insurance plans and drafting their budgets and could not feasibly consider a last-minute switch.

But having another insurance option for future years will give municipal governments more flexibility in their choice of health insurance providers.

Sheridan County Administrative Director Renee Obermueller said she does not anticipate the county will change the self-managed health insurance plan the county offers to its employees anytime soon, but knowing there is another option is comforting in a market where options are limited.

“The (Wyoming) County Commissioners Association did a survey statewide on comparisons of county insurance plans — on what deductibles were, out of pockets, premium costs, etcetera — and our plan was one of the bests in the state,” Obermueller said. “…Right now we’re comfortable staying with our self-insured, self-managed plan. But the opportunity to be able to have that state option available in the future is certainly something we don’t want to discount.”

The premiums Sheridan County pays for its self-managed plan will increase by 13 percent in the coming year, Obermuller said, but she noted that it will be the first time those premiums have increased in five years. That makes Sheridan County something of an outlier in the state, where many municipal governments saw large increases in their premiums over the same period; and, Obermueller said, the coming year’s increase is easy to explain.

“We had an unusual claim year this year,” Obermueller said. “…If things are back to normal this year, we may be able to lower (premiums) again.”

According to the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, 17 of the 23 counties in Wyoming offer self-managed insurance plans to their employees. Not all of those counties have had as much success as Sheridan County, however.

“It has to do with how you pool your membership — we have the county employees and some of our component units so there’s a little more control over the membership, versus when you have huge pools of members, that can affect your claim volume,” Obermueller said. “…The offset of that is, if you have more members of your pool you can spread the cost of those claims out more.”

When the Legislature’s Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee discussed the decision at an interim meeting last month, lobbyists from Blue Cross Blue Shield warned that letting municipal governments change plans could cause a surge in the private insurance market. Whether that turns out to be the case, or the Legislature acts preemptively to guard against it, remains to be seen. For the time being, local governments will have more insurance options to offer their employees.