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Countywide sales tax drops 6.6 percent, federal reforms could wreck county's insurance consortium
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (April 8, 2010) — County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer warned commissioners Thursday morning that the county had more than a 6.6 percent decline in sales tax revenues for last month, receiving only $169,000 for March 2010 compared to $181,000 for March of last year.

“We have one month now that the sales tax came down. We need to watch it next month to see if that becomes a trend,” Linnenbringer said.

The county sales tax revenue pays for the county’s general operations, including the sheriff’s department, the jail, and most county employees other than the road workers. The road and bridge department is supported by a special property tax designated only for roads; some county departments have special funds from other sources such as fees for various services or revenues from court fines. In addition, some people who work in the courthouse are actually state-paid employees even though they work in local offices.

Following a quarterly review of expenditures, county commissioners determined that the expenditures for both the eastern and western districts are within expected levels and shouldn’t cause problems in the road and bridge department.

However, even if county sales tax revenue remains stable, the county could face major changes in its employee benefits due to the recently passed federal health insurance regulations. Darrell Decker, the coordinator for the county health insurance consortium to which Pulaski County belongs, met with the commissioners and warned that his consortium’s underwriters are currently conducting an extensive internal review of how changes in federal insurance law will affect the consortium and its member counties.

Decker is a former county commissioner from Greene County, which includes Springfield, and helped numerous rural Missouri counties put together a consortium so they could purchase health insurance at a lower group rate.

Decker said many of the federal health insurance requirements and changes will take effect on Sept. 1, though it’s likely that the existing insurance policy offered by the consortium will be “grandfathered” for a limited period.

Immediate changes, Decker said, include removing the lifetime medical expense limit of $2 million. Costs are also likely to be shifted by medical professional from Medicare and Medicaid to private insurance because the government programs will be paying less than the full cost to provide services, with the result that the cost for private insurance will have to increase.

“So that is how they’re going to put you out of business?” asked Western District Commissioner Ricky Zweerink.

That’s correct, Decker said. Other problems, Decker said, include that it’s not clear whether unmarried children will have to be covered by insurance even if they move out of their parents’ home, and in most cases people cannot be denied insurance even if they have serious pre-existing conditions.

“There’s no way you can calculate rates in a situation like this,” Decker said. “We may be in a situation where by the time this thing is fully implemented in 2016 or 2018 our plan of being a consortium, or even private insurance entirely, may go by the wayside.”

Eastern District Commissioner Bill Farnham, who has suffered serious medical issues and has become an advocate for county employees who have had questions or concerns about their insurance, said he’s not happy with the federal health insurance rules even though they’re designed to help people with serious medical problems.

“I don’t think the wizards of Washington who voted for this thing knew what they were voting for or how this would impact the country,” Farnham said. “One of the scary things is when you have a congressman who thinks an island can capsize because there are too many people on it and he’s one of the people who voted for it, it shows you how bad shape the country is in.”

That’s a reference by Farnham to a widely-disseminated internet video of U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who told Admiral Robert Willard during his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that if too many American troops were transferred from Japan to the small American island of Guam, it might “become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”

The admiral told Johnson and other committee members that “we don’t anticipate that.”

Zweerink told Decker that something needs to be done to vote out the congressional majority that voted for President Barack Obama’s health care proposals and then have the new congress overturn the health care plan.

“I’m looking at one word: repeal,” Zweerink said. “How long do you think it will be before (federal rules) shove you out?”

“I don’t know, but it is probably coming,” Decker said.

That would be a shame, Linnenbringer said, because the health insurance consortium has significantly helped Pulaski County in keeping insurance rate hikes down despite some serious medical problems of employees in previous years.

“The consortium has saved this county a lot of money,” Linnenbringer said.

Decker agreed.

“It looks like unless the government kicks us out of business, we’ve got something of value to offer to the counties,” Decker said.

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