EES employees may pay more for health insurance

By Julie Fann
Star Staff

The Elizabethton Electric System board on Friday discussed raising the amount of money union employees are required to contribute toward family health insurance coverage. Board members reviewed new budget spreadsheets for 2002-2003 and decided increased insurance premiums for employees were the largest burden on proposed expenses besides tree-trimming.
   "The largest increase has come in insurance cost, and I've got a little extra in there for tree-trimming. I had $800,000 and trimmed it to $750,000. Those are the major changes in what I've been proposing in the last couple of proposals," Phil Isaacs, EES General Manager, told the board.
   Insurance costs for the proposed 2002-2003 budget are $653,000, up from $570,500 last year, reflecting a 14.46 percent increase. However, EES will pay approximately $80,000 less in base wages than last year due to the loss of three employees.
   The board anticipates a $200,000 net loss of revenue from the closing of the Alcoa aluminum plant and addressed the skyrocketing price of insurance premiums since Sept. 11.
   In recent union negotiations, employees asked for a five-year contract that would include a 3.8 percent TVA wage increase and more paid holidays. Isaacs agreed to a three year contract with a 2.6 percent cost of living raise. He also asked employees to contribute 15 percent toward health insurance coverage for dependents instead of last year's eight percent.
   Throughout the meeting, Issacs explained to the board what had transpired during negotiations. Board chairman, Gary Nave, suggested that employees need to pay even more for their insurance.
   "These increases need to be passed off to the employee or at least counted in this 2.6 percent raise. If you're paying someone three percent more to pay their insurance, they need to decide whether they want to pick that up, because it's more than a 2.6 percent raise if you pay all these premiums," he said.
   Isaacs said it was imperative, though, that EES be able to compete with neighboring utilities, which pay 100 percent of family insurance coverage for their employees. Most surrounding power companies also adhere to the standard TVA wage increase.
   Board member Shirley Hughes agreed with Nave and compared the current employee health insurance coverage to driving an expensive vehicle. "If they want to drive a Cadillac, let them pay for the Cadillac," she said.
   Nave reminded Isaacs of his role during what he referred to as tough economic times. "This is not fun for any of us, and we're not trying to make their life miserable...We see the trend of expenses getting out of hand and insurance getting out of hand, and your role is going to be cost cutter up here from now on," Nave said.
   Board member Richard Sammons indicated that employees tend to have the wrong mindset concerning economic responsibility. He gave an example of a previous client in his office.
   "He started complaining to high heaven about having to pay for an office call (physician) that insurance didn't pay for, and he, just a week ago, bought a $13,500 Honda Gold Wing to drive around town, but didn't want to pay $35 on a sniffling nose for one of his kids. Now, people, that's the thing that we're looking at. That mindset has got to change," he said.
   Hughes said an alternative would be for Isaacs to research other health insurance plans and possibly change the deductible so that premiums would not increase so much. She suggested Isaacs do some research and consult the board again at Tuesday's monthly meeting.
   "If they don't want to pick up on some of the cost, then we'll just have to go with a lesser plan. I'm going to shoot for that, but we're under negotiations. I have a tentative agreement with the union and, with what you're saying, we'll have to start over," Isaacs said.
   Randy Jones, Business Director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, based in Kingsport, said that he is trying to remain optimistic about the EES board but that his optimism may need to change.
   "Isaacs works pretty hard to keep things smooth up there, but that board is a strange animal. People don't realize how much of their own safety men who work on those power lines sacrifice. They don't notice us until there's a big storm," Jones said.