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Ex-Berkeley Co. commissioner remained on health plan

April 08, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD
  • Howard L. Strauss
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MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Former Berkeley County Commissioner Howard L. Strauss left office in December 2006, but was left on the county's health insurance policy in violation of state and federal laws, Commission legal counsel Norwood Bentley III said Thursday.

Except for retirees, "at no time is there any authority for any former employee or former commissioner to be carried upon the policy of the county government, even if they pay the full premium after they've been separated," Bentley said.

Strauss should have received a federally required notice that he was eligible for continuation coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) at the time he left office, Bentley said.

"They can get on a COBRA policy, but that has nothing to do with the county at all ... and there is a different premium schedule for COBRA policies," Bentley said. "His coverage should have ceased in 2006."

Strauss, who paid 100 percent of his premiums, will be removed from the county's policy at the end of April, Bentley said.

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"Because I am in charge of the benefits, I take responsibility for not catching it," Deputy County Administrator Alan J. Davis said Thursday.

A change in internal procedure led to the discovery that Strauss was receiving health insurance coverage through the county last fall, Davis said.

"I'm not going to point fingers at folks that are no longer here," Davis said.

Davis could not say whether Strauss benefited from the county's discounted large group rate for health insurance and didn't know how the former commissioner was able to remain on the policy.

Strauss could not be reached for comment Thursday and a telephone number listed for him was disconnected.

Each year, full-time county employees are given a form to elect the types of insurance they wish within approved dollar amounts and that form must be signed and returned to the County Commission, county officials said Thursday.

Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Jean Games-Neely said Thursday that the insurance matter "landed on her desk" last week and "people are looking into this and asking questions."

Games-Neely declined to say exactly who was looking into the situation.

Due to privacy laws, Davis could not say whether any health insurance claims had been filed on Strauss' behalf since he left office. Claims are added to the county's "experience," which is used to calculate what the county's insurance will cost each year, Bentley said.

Davis said Strauss was notified in November that a mistake had been made and the former commissioner was scheduled to be removed from the policy by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, until Bentley intervened.

Bentley said that he "verbally" advised that Strauss be removed from the county's policy last fall, but then discovered last month that the former commissioner still was on the list.

County Commissioner Anthony J. "Tony" Petrucci said he was told about Strauss' insurance policy after taking office last year, but thought there was a "reasonable explanation" for the arrangement and gave staff the benefit of the doubt at that time.

After speaking to Bentley last month, Petrucci said he agreed that Strauss needed to be removed immediately.

"Why it was ever done, (I) don't know," Petrucci said.

Commission President Ronald K. Collins said he had heard that Strauss was on the county policy, but didn't believe any laws were broken.

"Evidently, it was missed," Collins said.

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