• Berlin expects to save by spurning health exchange
    By David Delcore
     | November 20,2013

    BERLIN — The town of Berlin will keep its health care plan — for now.

    Faced with a deadline and an inability so far to navigate the state’s technically troubled online health exchange, town officials were unwilling to let their current insurer automatically enroll the town in Vermont Health Connect. Instead the Select Board decided this week that status quo is the way to go.

    Acting on the recommendation of Town Administrator Jeff Schulz, board members decided unanimously Monday night to take advantage of the three-month extension Gov. Peter Shumlin recently offered as an option to Vermont’s smallest employers.

    That includes Berlin — a town with 15 full-time employees, most of whom are enrolled in a taxpayer-subsidized health insurance plan through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont.

    The town’s insurance plan was scheduled to lapse at midnight Dec. 31 as part of the transition to the federally mandated state-run exchange, but problems with the website prompted Shumlin to offer an extension through March 31.

    Schulz told board members that taking advantage of the three-month reprieve would save the town money and be a better deal for its employees.

    The town has until Nov. 25 to notify Blue Cross that it plans to continue its current coverage.

    Absent action by the board, Blue Cross would have automatically enrolled the town in the Vermont Health Connect plan that most closely matches its current coverage. Based on conversations with Blue Cross, that would have been the “gold plan” — near the top of the exchange’s metal-rated scale — and required the town to pay, on average, 8 percent more for its employees’ insurance premiums.

    Under the current plan the town pays the full premium for its employees and 50 percent of any deductibles. That will continue through March 31, with no change in premiums or any other aspect of the current plan.

    In addition to saving money, the move buys some time for the board, which recently returned to the bargaining table with the union representing nearly half of its small workforce. The seven-member union represents local police officers, who are working under a contract that defined their health insurance benefit but included a clause that the benefit would be subject to renegotiation in anticipation of changes stemming from passage of the Affordable Care Act.

    Those negotiations are ongoing, and it is unclear whether the union’s members will be treated any differently than the town’s eight other full-time employees after the anticipated shift to Vermont Health Connect in the spring.

    Schulz said he has tried a couple of times to enroll in Vermont Health Connect without success.

    “It didn’t work out so well,” he said.

    Though the board agreed to take advantage of the extension, members urged Schulz to continue trying to sign up in anticipation of the transition.

    Also Monday, the board took a necessary step to pursue the acquisition of a privately owned water system and was updated on local efforts to reduce flood insurance premiums for residents and businesses.

    Schulz said the state Public Service Board recently asked the town to become a co-petitioner involving the proposed sale of the Berlin Water Co., and the board authorized Schulz to take the steps necessary to satisfy that request.

    The town is interested in buying the water system, which is owned by Dean Hedges and serves roughly 80 customers along the Barre-Montpelier Road corridor, as part of its plans to create a municipal water system that would be served by three town-owned wells. The proposed purchase requires state review and approval and is contingent on Hedges’ ability to demonstrate clear title to all the property involved.

    Schulz said the review process is underway and that if the town conducts the title work it could deduct the cost from the $150,000 it has offered to pay for the water system. The town’s option to purchase the system runs through June 30, and officials have said the acquisition would be financed as part of the $5.5 million water system they hope to start constructing next spring.

    Meanwhile, board members were told that officials are working to reduce the cost of federal flood insurance to local property owners.

    Expanded public outreach related to flood insurance and flood risks can earn the town at least a 5 percent reduction in rates that recently spiked because of a federal law to replenish the disaster-depleted federal flood insurance program. With some work, the board was told, the town might be able to get flood insurance premiums trimmed as much as 10 percent.

    david.delcore @timesargus.com

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