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Affordable Care Act could cost Stevens County in penalties

MORRIS -- Stevens County could face an annual penalty of $170,000 or more starting in 2014 if the county's current health benefits do not qualify as a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act, Human Resources Director Janet Raguse told the Stevens County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Although definitions and guidance for the program are continually changing, one thing that seems certain is that the county needs to explore offering group health insurance to county employees, Raguse said.

The county currently offers employees $750 a month to buy their own health insurance through a cafeteria plan. However, this plan may not qualify as health insurance coverage under the 2010 law, which could result in penalties for the county if employees choose to get insurance though the Minnesota Health Insurance Exchange.

If just one employee uses the exchange – which is still in the development stages in the Minnesota legislature – and their insurance is subsidized, the county would be penalized $2,000 for every eligible county employee, not just those using the exchange.

Because the threshold for subsidizing insurance is “very generous” – families with a household income of less than $109,000 – it's likely that most county employees would be subsidized, said Gomer.

In a best case scenario, the county could be looking at an annual penalty of $170,000 or more, Human Resource Specialist Jan Gomer said.

As a result, it might be most cost effective for the county to look at a group health insurance plan, said Raguse, a process that could take a long time to develop.

And the county could still end up being penalized, to some degree, if the group health insurance plan doesn't offer enough benefits or costs too much and employees elect to purchase insurance through the exchange.

Stevens County is unique in not offering a health care plan to employees, which has made learning about the impacts of the Affordable Care Act difficult, said Raguse.

To move forward with this process, the county is working with Big Stone County and the Ortonville school district to meet with an attorney and share costs while they learn about implementation options.

The county will also be putting together a committee to discuss options and get the various employee groups and unions on board whatever changes might be coming.