"This is not a done deal"  : Chairman says "we're just looking at it"

Tina Manning, retired Martin County Register of Deeds, was one of the pre-65 retirees who spoke during Thursday's special called meeting of the Martin County Commissioners.

WILLIAMSTON - What was thought to be clarifications for retirees led to other questions during Thursday night's special called meeting of the Martin County Board of Commissioners.

"There has been no decision made by this board as to what (insurance) plan or what direction we are going," Commissioner Chairman Ronnie Smith assured retirees.

Smith was referring to possible changes outlined in a letter sent out by Martin County Manager James Bennett.

Many of the county's retirees who are less than 65 years of age made their concerns regarding potential changes to their insurance coverage known directly to all commissioners and the county manager during the meeting's public comment section.

Retirees across the board shared their appreciation for having their insurance covered at this time in their life and many called this fact the reason they stayed with the county when other job opportunities came across their paths.

However, they would also be faced with dramatically increased costs with little warning. Susan Manning, one of the "pre-65" retirees, said part of their new costs, if the changes in the April 12 letter were approved, could result in their monthly medicine bill alone more than tripling from $300 to approximately $1,100. Potential increased co-pays and costs to re-meet deductibles would be on top of this increase.

Statistics provided by Bennett showed a 2021 primary care visit under the Gold - comparable to the current insurance of the retirees - carried a $10 co-pay. Under the Bronze plan that co-pay rises to $60.

Specialist visits would increase from a $40 co-pay to $120.

During public comment, Tina Manning, retired Martin County Register of Deeds, provided a timeline of events explaining prior changes to pre-65 retirees' coverage and the savings those changes brought to the county.

Manning stated the pre-65 subset of retirees were assured the individual plans they had to go on would be the best Blue Cross Blue Shield had to offer and, thanks to the monetary savings brought on by other insurance changes, would be affordable to the county.

"Recently it has been stated by one of Martin County's department heads, and I quote, 'that the pre-65 retirees are a burden to the taxpayers,'" Manning stated - stunning the audience.

"We here in Martin County have a great deal of burdens hanging around our necks," Manning told the audience, "but I am speaking with great confidence and a loud voice that these 14 pre-65 retirees are not the ones who are the burdens."

Bennett provided an overview of retiree health insurance since the 2011 amendment of county policy regarding their coverage.

Prior to Sept. 1, 2011, Bennett said the county was paying for active employees and retirees on the same plan but increasing costs drove county officials to seek more affordable way of operating.

He stated in 2016, Martin County changed to the State Health Plan due to an anticipated 177 percent increase in premiums. This change did not allow pre-65 retirees on the State Health Plan.

At the time, county officials chose to find individual options for the group instead of putting the purchasing of insurance on the retiree.

Details regarding potential plan options and how a Health Reimbursement Account - as mentioned in Bennett's April 12 letter - were discussed in more detail than retirees had been given previously but some said it was still not completely clear.

Smith picked up the conversation following Bennett's presentation.

"We have taken a look at a lot of things going on in the county since Manager Bennett has been here," Smith explained, pointing out "he's not a bad guy" regarding Bennett.

"We asked him to take a look at not only insurance, look at all the things that we do. He has a vast knowledge and experience. He's been around for quite some time. I've seen him go into places and makes a big difference in saving the taxpayer money," Smith continued in reference to Bennett.

"This was something we ask him to take a look at," Smith repeated.

Commissioner David Gurganus called into question who Smith meant by "we" since a majority of commissioners did not have any knowledge of the letter going out to the pre-65 retirees or the implications outlined in the letter.

"I assumed when you said 'we' you were talking about the board," Gurganus directed to Smith."

Smith responded, "I was talking about finance and the manager."

"I want to make that clear," Gurganus added, "that I've not been involved in any of those conversations."

"Issues of this nature that are very sensitive as they are to people and what they are going at home and how they are going to live and buy groceries I think the board of commissioners ought to have an opportunity to know what's going to go on before it goes on," Gurganus pointed out.

He said this would at least give commissioners an opportunity to answer questions when their phones begin to ring, as happened in this situation.

Gurganus called it "disrespectful" for commissioners to be but in such a position.

With regards to the proposed change in insurance for the pre-65 retirees, Gurganus said, "I just can't support it."

Commissioner Dempsey Bond expressed frustration with the way concerns have been expressed since the letter came out. He asked the public to "give us a chance, let us take a look at this," he promised "we'll make the right decision."

Commissioner Joe Ayers said by the wording of the letter, he understood why retirees were upset, saying it was "not unreasonable at all."

"I'm not in favor of making this change," he explained.

After reviewing statistics provided in Bennett's presentation, he explained any money saved to the county could be exhausted by the Health Reimbursement Account.

"I don't see any savings here," Ayers said. "In my opinion I think we need to let the retirees stay like they are."

Commissioner Emily Biggs thanked those who had called her and welcomed anyone else to do the same.

"Government, as we know is charged with balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the whole. So what this board will be charged with in the near future is coming up with a medium between with what we foresee and what we have," Biggs stated.

No action was taken on the matter during the meeting. The full meeting can be viewed on the Martin County Government Facebook page.

Sarah Hodges Stalls can be reached via email at shstalls@ncweeklies.com