Towns gear up for health-insurance requirements

By Christopher Crosby

AREA— As key provisions of the Affordable Care Act came into effect Jan. 1, small towns across the country are grappling with ways to implement the necessary changes in order to comply with the new health care regulations.

Many are facing the same predicament that forced Oxford’s hand last week when selectmen voted to change the maximum number of hours a part-time employee may work per week to 29 1/2, just below the federal minimum which requires employers of 50 or more to provide health insurance to everyone working 30 hours.

Addressing selectmen Dec. 19, Oxford Town Manager Michael Chammings said the decision was not painless, but the town was forced into the decision because they had not budgeted health insurance for additional employees.

That move will likely have an impact on the emergency services the town provides. Oxford has 22 full-time and 85 part-time employees, approximately of 65 of whom work in fire, police, and recreation departments.

Early predictions thought those emergency providers would have the most difficulty complying with the policy. Working in two-person, 12-hour shifts, Fire Chief Scott Hunter told selectmen last week that it would be difficult for firefighters not to exceed the 30-hour limit.

Though employers, such as Oxford, must offer insurance, employees are not required to join the town’s health insurance plan and instead may choose among other options to be picked up under a spouse’s plan, shop in the online market place created by the law, or opt out buying insurance altogether.

Though employees may choose not to fall under a town’s umbrella, municipalities often budget on the asumption they will. Oxford’s health insurance figures are separated by department and were not readily accessible, according to the town’s book keeper.

Oxford’s decision to redefine a part-time employee and skirt around the requirement was unique among the town’s surveyed.

Paris, which, like Oxford, must offer employees health insurance, sent out notices to qualifying employees in October alerting them they may seek insurance through the town. Paris, like the ACA law, defines and offers insurance to employees working 30 or more hours.

As of Dec. 27, the town had zero new applications, according to bookkeeper Paula Locke.

The majority of the town’s 50 employees comprise the fire department, yet because most members work less than 30-hours a week, they are not eligible for health insurance, Locke said.

Norway defines a full-time employee lower than Oxford – 28-hours or more, and current practices, including offering each one health insurance, comply with ACA requirements, according to administrative assistance Carol Millet.

That policy comes with a hefty price-tag. For fiscal year 2013-14, the town budgeted $316,613 to cover 28 full-time employees, an increase of $46,549  from the previous year. Currently, however, only one employee takes health insurance.

Unlike Oxford, Norway’s Fire Department consists of 46 volunteer members.

On the other end, Buckfield falls well below the 50-employee bar with eight part-time and six full-time employees. As a result, the town offers health-care insurance to its full-time employees, anyone working more than 37 hours, but not part-time. Of its six full-time staffers, only three have signed up for insurance, which is provided through Maine Municipal Employees’ Health Trust.

In July, Buckfield budgeted $41,400 for health insurance from 2013-14; however, since some employees declined to enroll in December, the town expects to save money, according to Clerk Cindy Dunn.

“We’re informing all of the employees what’s coming down the road Jan. 1,” Dunn said.

Other than trimming down the probationary period new full-time hires are offered insurance from 90 to 60 days, Dunn says Buckfield has not had to make significant changes.

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