When Mahoning County's common pleas court judges balked at having their employees pay a portion of the premiums for their health insurance coverage, it prompted the commissioners, who control the county's pursestrings, to think outside the box. And when they did, they came up with a unique perspective of this situation.
Rather than giving in to the judges, or spoiling for a legal battle, commissioners Edward Reese, Vicki Allen Sherlock and David Ludt asked Administrator Gary Kubic, human resources director Connie Pierce and the county prosecutor's office for answers to two questions: Does state statute grant the board of commissioners the ability to determine and administer a group health insurance plan for county employees? Is an employee copay provision within a county group health insurance plan considered a reduction in pay and, therefore, subject to review and approval of the state personnel board of review?
The answers are still being analyzed.
But the commissioners, led by Reese, are of the opinion that the judges have, in effect, said they weren't interested in participating in the county's group health insurance plan when they refused to go along with the requirement that nonunion county employees pay 10 percent of their insurance premiums.
"What makes the court employees any better than the other county employees?" Reese asks. "Apparently justice is blind to copayment."
There is nothing unique about government employees paying a percentage of their health insurance premiums. Copayment is certainly standard in the private sector.
Former state Auditor Jim Petro, in a special performance audit of Mahoning County government, noted that although some unions had agreed to a copayment provision, the money was not being withheld from the employees' paychecks. Petro recommended that all county employees contribute toward their health insurance.
Thus, the commissioners announced that the money would be collected, starting in January, and that nonunion employees would pay 10 percent of their premiums. The commissioners are setting the stage for future contact talks with the various unions so that all county employees will end up contributing toward the cost of their coverage.
But common pleas judges say that the courts are a separate branch of government -- a "distinct entity," in the words of Judge Robert Lisotto -- and are responsible for managing their own budgets.
Lisotto said that the judges are the only ones with authority to determine wages and benefits of court employees and that the requirement for copayment amounts to a reduction in pay imposed not by them, but by the commissioners.
If that's how the courts want to play it, the commissioners should oblige.
If the judges of the common pleas court want to give special treatment to their employees, they should get their own insurance plan. And the commissioners should allocate only the amount of money they now pay to cover the court employees -- minus the amount for copayment of premiums.