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Ventura County Healthcare Costs to Jump Again

Government employees will see an increase in premiums for a fifth year, a survey finds.

September 28, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Mirroring trends nationwide, healthcare costs for Ventura County government workers will increase up to 18% in 2005, the fifth consecutive year the county has seen double-digit increases in health premiums, according to a new report and county officials.

"This is a national problem -- trying to deal with the rising costs of healthcare," said Barry Zimmerman, a benefits manager in the Human Resources Division. The county is already picking up several million dollars in extra costs this year as part of a subsidy for one employee health plan.

But because county managers anticipated the upcoming rate hikes, the necessary money for the projected increases is included in the 2004-05 budget adopted in June, Zimmerman said.

Nationwide, healthcare premiums rose about 11% in 2004 and 14% the year before, according to a survey by the Kaiser Foundation. But healthcare costs typically are higher in Southern California, and that is reflected in the rates for county workers, Zimmerman said.

Ventura County's 7,500 employees can choose among three healthcare plans, all of which are expecting double-digit rate increases.

In January, the biweekly cost for PacifiCare PPO will be $548 per employee, up 18% from the current year. PacifiCare's HMO option will rise 16% to $311. The Ventura County Health Care Plan, an HMO administered by the county, will go up 13% to $178.

Employees typically pay any costs above a set dollar amount contributed by the county each year, Zimmerman said. But a union contract for 5,200 workers capped the employees' share, requiring the county to subsidize additional rates hikes in the PacifiCare HMO plan, he said.

In past years, rates have been so low that the subsidy was not needed, but this fiscal year, the county will have to shoulder an extra $5.7 million, Zimmerman said. Overall, the county will spend nearly $38 million on healthcare premiums.

"It's one of the costs of doing business," he said.

Ventura County, like other local governments, has struggled in recent years with rising healthcare costs in a time of lean budgets. In 1996, it sought to control costs by applying for and obtaining a state license to establish its own managed-care program. Created by county Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand, the program slashed costs by steering employees to county doctors and clinics. But its rates have increased along with those of other providers.

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