The Whatcom Transportation Authority's insurance program could be in financial jeopardy, and board members are considering whether to scrap the program and join a statewide insurance pool.
The board's labor representative is asking that more information be gathered before making such a major decision about benefits that are popular with employees. The transit agency's director of human resources warns there's not a lot of time to make a decision because the program's costs could become unsustainably high by April 2013.
The board's executive committee, which makes recommendations to the full board, agreed on Thursday, Oct. 11, that the WTA should consider applying to join the Association of Washington Cities, so the agency has the option of participating in the association's insurance pool. If the WTA is accepted into the association, it would enroll in its dental benefits program starting in January 2013.
Because the WTA is not a city, its board would ask the city of Bellingham to sponsor the transit agency's membership to the association.
The board is scheduled to decide at its Thursday, Oct. 18, meeting whether to seek membership in the association and join its dental program - a move the employees' union supports, said Mark Lowry, the board's labor representative.
The decision to move medical coverage from WTA's own insurance account to the statewide pool would come later, through negotiations with the union.
"Yes we have a problem, but is it the point where we should bail on something right now for the unknown?" Lowry said at the executive committee meeting. "We need to look at this extremely carefully."
Medical benefits at WTA are good enough to attract employees to jobs that pay less than other public agencies, officials said.
"A lot of us work here because of our health plan," Lowry said.
Management is committed to offering the same level of benefits if the move to the association is made, said Andy Rowlson, WTA's director of human resources.
Lowry noted that the worry over the immediate future of WTA's insurance program came from claims paid over just two months - July and August. The agency has a relatively small number of employees who are costing the program a lot of money, WTA officials say.
WTA runs its own insurance program, and its reserves are healthy at more than $2 million, Rowlson said. The concern is over how much the cost of "stop-loss" insurance could rise beginning in April. That's the insurance the WTA buys to cover the most expensive claims.
WTA pays an annual premium of almost $500,000 for stop-loss insurance, and due to a recent jump in claims that could increase. Also, the agency's stop-loss provider could raise the claim amount that triggers payments to WTA, from $75,000 to $100,000 or more, Rowlson said.
The outlook for WTA's insurance fund could improve in coming months, but Rowlson recommends making a decision that keeps employee benefits solvent before it's too late.
ATTEND THE MEETING
What: WTA Board of Directors will consider changes to health benefits.
When: 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 18.
Where: Whatcom County Council chambers, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.
More information: ridewta.com/board_of_directors. Click on "meeting packets" (posting Monday, Oct. 15).