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EDITORIAL: Benefit or budget-buster?

July 21, 1998

EDITORIAL: Benefit or budget-buster?

An informal survey of some long-time Washington County government employees recently turned up this fact: Many workers who've reached age 60 keep on working, not because they want to, but because they don't believe they can afford to quit. Now comes a proposal to help make retirement more affordable, but before the commissioners pass it, they need to a look closely at the potential costs.

At present, county employees who retire before age 65 get half their health insurance benefits paid for by the county, no matter how many (or how few) years of service they have.

Under the new proposal, employees retiring at age 60 with 30 years' service would get 100 percent of their health benefits paid for by the county. Workers age 55 with 25 years' service would pick up 25 percent of their health-care costs, with county government picking up the other 75 percent. Employees age 50 with 15 years' service would pay half the costs.

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The new plan makes sense in one respect because it requires workers to put in at least 15 years to get half the cost of their medical insurance covered. Alan Davis, the county's Human Resources Director, says that the plan could break even in two years, assuming that "everyone stays healthy."

That's a big assumption, since county government is self-insured, and picks up all medical expenses up to $100,000.

The plan is similar to one proposed by County Commissioner Ron Bowers for the school system. Bowers, who notes that the county's teaching force is filled with educators with many years' service, would like to provide some of them with an incentive to retire by paying for health insurance until Medicare kicks in.

In both cases, it's the unknown that scares us. Would most workers be like Ted Wolford, the 61-year-old superintendent of the Washington County Roads Department, who says he has no interest in retiring early? Or would many depart at 50, leaving the county with half their medical bills for the next 15 years? Until the county gets more information, of the kind only an actuarial consultant can provide, we recommend the commissioners don't change a thing.

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