In an effort to reign in escalating health care costs in an era of shrinking budget dollars, the city of Pine Bluff is considering a move to a self-funded insurance plan from the existing fully-insured option.

In an effort to reign in escalating health care costs in an era of shrinking budget dollars, the city of Pine Bluff is considering a move to a self-funded insurance plan from the existing fully-insured option.

The Pine Bluff City Council Administration Committee held a special meeting Thursday afternoon at City Hall to discuss the available options with Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, City Finance Director Steve Miller, City Human Resources Director Vickie Conaway and internal auditor Gina Devers.

"We really have until the end of January to get the insurance situation settled but it will be preferable if we can get it done before the end of the year," Miller said.

Committee Chair and Fourth Ward Alderman George Stepps and Second Ward Alderman Wayne Easterly both expressed a sense of frustration with the manner in which the various insurance plans had been considered.

"We normally see the plan comparisons and presentations from the beginning of the process," Easterly said. "But this time we did not. I just don’t have a feel for each plan like I have in past years."

"We should be kept more abreast of the discussions," Stepps said. "The members of the Administration Committee should have been at the table. It would have been proper for us to be in these discussions."

Conaway said her intent along with that of Devers was to do the bulk of the work in advance of meeting with the committee.

"We tried to keep some of this off of you but now we see that you wanted to be a part of it," Conaway said.

Easterly and Stepps both went out of their way to let Conaway and Devers know that they were not implying anything negative about the work that the two had done.

"It’s not that I don’t trust these ladies," Easterly said. "I just don’t have a feel for these policies."

Devers presented the committee with the results of her research, finding that the estimated premium costs for 2014 if the existing plan through QualChoice is maintained, come to $3,598,734; the estimated costs by going with a self-insured plan administered by QualChoice come to $2,777,071; and the estimated maximum cost through the self-insured QualChoice plan comes to $3,328,158.

Devers said that going the self-insured route has several benefits aside from the cost savings, including being exempt from most state premium taxes; having more control over plans that could be tailored to our employees’ needs, as well as not having to pay the 10 percent premium increase that would be required to stay with the current plan.

"City employees will see absolutely no changes to their current plans," Devers said. "The only difference will be that instead of sending payments to an insurance company each month the money will be deposited into a health insurance fund. QualChoice will continue to administer the claims process for both medical and prescription policies; therefore employees will continue to have access to the same doctors and discounts that they do now."

Devers said the city would purchase reinsurance policies to protect it against being liable for large payouts.

The administration committee budget meeting was held upon the conclusion of the insurance discussion.

Lenore Shoults, executive director of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, requested a budget amount of $80,501 for 2014, which is a $30,000 increase from the mayor’s request and the 2013 budget amount.

"We were recently told that our present staffing levels are unsustainable and that in order to be re-accredited by the American Alliance of Museums we must increase that level," Shoults said. "In 2000 when our present accreditation was awarded we had 15 full-time staff and five part-time; now we have five full-time staff and two part-time. We are doing everything we can to cut costs. For instance I take home tablecloths and costumes when they need to be cleaned and wash them myself. We all pitch in doing things like taking out the trash. We love the center and will do what needs to be done."

Easterly was apologetic in his belief that the city could not accommodate Shoults’ request at present.

"I don’t think we can add to the $50,000 currently budgeted," Easterly said. "We really wish we could do more but revenues are going down. Just remember that if you run into an expense during the year to come back before this committee. We will do what we can to help."

Shoults thanked the committee and the mayor for doing what they can to help the Arts & Science Center.

Kristi Alexander, executive director of the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Historical Museum, was next up and asked for a budget increase of $20,000 from the current $20,000 level to allow her to hire additional staff.

"I am now the only employee at the museum with the loss of Lynn Gaines," Alexander said. "We will never be able to replace his dedication. If I need to go to a meeting I have to close the museum. If I have work that needs to be done behind closed doors then I can’t be out front with visitors. The museum is no longer able to stay open six days a week."

As with the Arts & Science Center, the committee said that it was unable to grant the Museum’s budget request and kept the 2014 budget at $20,000.

Hollingsworth submitted a proposed job title change from Administrative Assistant to the Mayor to Assistant to the Mayor (the position held by Evelyn Horton) and a salary increase of $15,000 per year for the committee’s approval.

While Easterly cautioned that the move may prompt other city employees to call for similar treatment, both he and Stepps agreed that the move was the correct one.

"If we don’t change that you may end up with the position becoming vacant and having to hire someone in midstream," Stepps said.

The committee recommended the change be submitted to the full City Council for approval.