The fact that some city of Ashland employees are just now moving to a preferred provider network health insurance plan may come as a shock to most workers in the private sector, who long ago resigned themselves to visiting participating doctors and specialists to avoid high out-of-network fees.




Despite budget problems, city employees still have enviable health insurance packages by the standards of the business world.




All city employees pay 5 percent of the cost of their monthly health insurance premiums and have a $100 annual deductible. Some employees will move to a preferred provider health insurance plan on July — and some will see deductibles rise to $200 a year.




Full-time employees can get family health insurance coverage. However, part-time employees only receive individual insurance.




Ashland Citizens Budget Committee member Allen Douma said preferred provider networks became the norm in the business world at least a decade ago as businesses worked to rein in soaring health insurance costs.




"That's really standard procedure all across the country," he said. "And increasingly, more and more of the cost is being born by the individual with increased co-payments and deductibles and a reduction in the things that are covered."




City of Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray said preferred provider networks have traditionally not been very attractive to employees here. It wasn't until about five years ago that there was a big push to get doctors and hospitals in the Rogue Valley to be part of the networks, she said.




City employees in the past have resisted changes to their health insurance benefits, especially those like police officers and firefighters who face a heightened risk of on-the-job injury, Gray said.




Police officers recently volunteered to join a preferred provider network, while firefighters decided not to join.




Douma said a preferred provider-type network in the Rogue Valley went bankrupt several years ago, and it has taken this long to build back the area's networking capability.




Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses &

especially small ones &

can't afford to provide health insurance for their employees.




Those that do offer insurance have moved to higher deductible plans in an effort to slow the escalation of costs. Annual deductibles of $500 to $1,000 have become increasingly common, she said.




Slattery said few companies can offer family health insurance and have scaled back to only offering health insurance for the employees themselves. Business owners who can't offer and join a group plan at work, as well as self-employed people, are struggling.




"Many people I know who are self-employed have only catastrophic health insurance plans because individual insurance is so expensive," she said.




Catastrophic plans cover only major medical expenses above a certain threshold, leaving people to pay for most doctor visits, tests and medical procedures out-of-pocket.




City officials said pressure is mounting to control the cost of health insurance for public employees.




"I think the employee groups understand the city can't continue to face double digit increases in health insurance premiums," City Administrator Martha Bennett said. "It's a cost we need to better manage."




The city of Ashland is part of a pool of cities that use their collective bargaining power to negotiate for health insurance. That pool is developing more insurance offerings, like high deductible plans, to offer financially struggling cities, Gray said.




Still, it's common in the public sector for employees to pay only 5 to 10 percent of their health insurance premiums, and some jurisdictions pay all of the premiums for their employees, she said.




Employees usually pay more in the private sector.




At the Ashland Daily Tidings and Medford Mail Tribune, which are owned by the same parent company, full-time employees pay 25 percent of the cost of their monthly health insurance premiums. Part-time employees pay 45 percent of premiums and, along with full-time employees, are eligible for family health insurance.




Employees are in a preferred provider network and deductibles vary.




Both newspapers suffered lay-offs this week.




Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.