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Board vote could position county for a discrimination suit

Hubbard County Commissioner Lyle Robinson

The Hubbard County Board voted to revamp employee health benefits plans, a move outgoing commissioner Lyle Robinson said invited a lawsuit and poor morale among workers.

The 4-1 vote essentially wipes out single health insurance policies for county employees married to each other and forces those couples to purchase a family policy.

Robinson characterized it as "starting a labor fight over nothing."

The upshot of it is that Highway Department employee Marv Vredenberg and his wife, a county employee, stand to lose an estimated $1,200 a year in benefits beginning in 2013. They must sign onto a family plan for coverage even though they don't insure any dependents.

At least three other couples may be in a similar boat, including Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne and wife Marie, a Social Services employee. Marie Dearstyne wanted to take out a single policy, with her husband insured under a "single plus dependants" policy for him and the children. That won't be allowed in 2013.

They must enroll in the family plan.

Moreover, if Dearstyne is an allegedly aggrieved party, the county will have to retain outside counsel to defend the county against a lawsuit.

Robinson argued the sums of money involved were so minor, they weren't worth fighting over.

"We'll pay a year and a half's worth of the retainer, we'll have a bunch of meetings," he said of hiring an attorney. "It'll take us five, six years if we win to break even. Why would you start a labor fight over nothing?"

Robinson said the vote also sends the wrong message to employees and will result in poor morale.

According to Coordinator Debbie Thompson, for the past decade, county employees married to each other have been allowed to purchase single health policies because in the long run it saved money.

She discovered in 2011 that was no longer the case. So she brought the issue to the Benefits Committee recently. That group made a recommendation to the board that single coverage for married county employees be terminated.

"The board approved a recommendation from the Benefits Committee that will be all family units going forward will receive the family premium amount and if they don't need the family coverage they can take that family premium and split it between the two of them and split it and take two single plans that are different from each other if they want it to be," Thompson said of the complicated board vote.

Vredenberg posited, and Robinson agreed, that he would be able to purchase a single policy if he was married to anyone but another county worker and that it was discriminatory to make him buy a family unit policy at a higher rate.

Marie Dearstyne essentially made a similar argument, saying that a couple's health needs might be vastly different from each other and require different policies.

"The county's intent with our benefit package has always been to provide health insurance coverage," Thompson said.

"The dollars that get contributed have gotten skewed over this last year and that's where the problem has come. We're trying to work in a direction where every employee is trying to get treated the same.

"And that's what our union negotiations were about this spring, to freeze the single plus and family contributions and allow the single contribution to increase with whatever our rate increase is. Those are all going to come together someday. And then every employee will get the same amount."

But Robinson also questioned the timing of the vote because all but two of the county's unions have signed agreements, including the Highway Department, for which Vredenberg was a labor representative.

"All of my life we've been told we have to negotiate any change in the benefits through the union," Robinson said. "But now suddenly the board wants to make this change. We have a committee of people (Benefits Committee) and if you asked them to explain it to you, they can't. The ones that voted unanimously to do it, yet they can't understand or explain it to us," he fumed.

He said the board has never bypassed the unions before in a benefits matter and now is not the time to start. The unions had no sooner settled their contracts, than the issue arose.

"So he feels betrayed," Robinson said of Vredenberg.

Moreover Robinson said the Benefits Committee "had to do it this way so the board is the bad guy. That doesn't help relations and I know for the first hours this morning all they did was bitch about the county board instead of work, the employees standing around the water cooler."

He said the county must partner with its employees and fleecing their benefits isn't the way to do it.

Thompson maintains the issue was always before the unions.

"In negotiations, we this year allowed that the single contribution will increase whatever percent our insurance rates increase. So if our rates increase 1 percent, that contribution will increase 1 percent. The single plus children and family will stay frozen where they have the last two years," she said.

"Did the county just walk into a lawsuit? Yes they did," Robinson said. "We got letters from the unions saying they will file grievances and they will take us to court."

Thompson deflected questions about whether the county would be sued.

"I guess I don' know that I want to speak to that," she said. The final vote was 4-1, with Robinson vocally objecting.

He had earlier chastised Thompson for trying to move the issue onto the morning agenda even though it was set for afternoon, thus conducting the hearing before the employees could attend it.

"I've always tried to listen to both sides before I make up my mind and there's something about this that just doesn't smell right," Robinson said.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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