What can city afford in way of insurance?

The current discussion over what the city of Homer can afford to pay in terms of employee health insurance benefits is not about whether city employees are worth what one council member has described as a “Rolls Royce” plan. 

It’s about what the city can afford. Or to put it another way, it’s about what city taxpayers can afford.

No one wants to begrudge city workers a good health insurance plan, but when lots of people who are helping to fund that plan are covered by an it-drives-but-it’s-not-pretty-and-it-is-expensive plan, well, it’s understandable if some are just a tad envious. Not to mention somewhat shell-shocked that at least some city employees don’t seem to realize their plan is way above average.

Again, this isn’t about the worth of city employees. Residents appreciate the jobs they do — keeping us safe in terms of police and fire protection; clearing and repairing roads; providing a clean water supply; maintaining a top-notch harbor, airport and multiple parks; helping us stay healthy through a community recreation program; and, yes, even planning and more. People choose to live in the city because these services are offered, and they recognize it takes a strong city workforce to offer them.

It should go without saying that residents want qualified workers in those jobs. For a number of reasons, however, it’s difficult to believe that having employees contribute more toward their insurance plan will make it harder for the city to attract and keep qualified workers. 

First, under the proposals being considered, the city still is offering a great benefits package. The bigger employee contribution is a reality check: Times have changed. What once was affordable isn’t any longer. The city has been able to put off for years what’s old news for most who work in the private sector. Second, living and working in Homer are benefits all by themselves. Homer has lots of residents who gave up good-paying jobs — and Rolls Royce health-care plans — for the privilege of living here. There are even more residents who could be making a better living somewhere else, but believe a good life in Homer outweighs a better health plan elsewhere. Third, those who choose a career in public service aren’t doing it for the great pay and benefits. Are they? City employees who figure their worth by their paycheck and benefits package are very likely short-changing themselves.

The city faces some hard choices to keep the budget balanced. A bigger employee contribution for insurance seems a better option than cutting employees or services. It really boils down to this question: What can the city afford?

In a perfect world, every city employee and every resident of Homer — every American — would have a “Rolls Royce” health-care plan. In an imperfect world, we need to figure out what we can afford. Certainly, as the city and nation grapple with the cost of insurance and health care, our hope would be that there would be a way to tangibly reward those who live healthy lifestyles, that an illness or injury won’t be allowed to bankrupt anyone, that more emphasis would be placed on prevention, and that covered treatment options would include what many consider alternative therapies.

In the meantime, we’re intrigued with council member Beau Burgess’ idea of universal health care for the city, something he believes can be done with a 2.5 percent sales tax. Vermont currently hopes to pave the way for the states in providing such a system. Is it possible Homer could lead communities across Alaska in finding a better way to do health insurance?