O.C. Union Will Reveal Health Costs

Times Staff Writer

An ongoing dispute over Orange County's payments to its deputy sheriffs union to buy health-care coverage escalated this week as two supervisors critical of the arrangement demanded to know how much the union pays.

Robert MacLeod, general manager of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said the information would be provided today after a separate request from The Times. The amount the county pays the union -- $620 a month for each of 1,805 employees, or $13.4 million a year -- was negotiated as part of the union's contract and approved by a divided Board of Supervisors last week.

Supervisors Chris Norby and Chuck Smith want to know how much of the county's payment covers the actual cost of insurance and how much might be used for other expenses, including administration, brokers fees and other union costs -- including political activities.

The lawmakers demanded an audit but were overruled by their colleagues Tom Wilson, Jim Silva and Bill Campbell.

"We shouldn't just be handing them money without any accountability," Norby said. "We have to understand these costs, and right now we don't."

Smith said supervisors asked for full disclosure months ago and the union refused. "When someone refuses to give me information, then I smell something wrong," he said. "Until they tell us where the money's gone, the public should be asking where the money went."

At last week's board meeting, union officials declined to disclose the cost of health-care coverage. But they said their management of the three health-care plans offered to deputies saved $6 million a year compared with the cost of buying that level of insurance through the county's plans.

Norby and Smith contend that such savings would be realized whether the deputies acquired health insurance through their union or through the county itself, because in either event the cost of insuring deputies is cheaper.

The reason, they said, is that as a whole, deputies are younger and more physically fit, and most career deputies retire by age 50, when they can qualify for pension payments equaling 90% of their salaries.

California law also requires that coverage for a host of illnesses suffered by law enforcement officers, including police and firefighters, should be paid from government workers' compensation funds, not employee health insurance. These so-called presumptive ailments, contained in the state labor code, include heart trouble, cancer, pneumonia, hernias, tuberculosis, meningitis, blood-borne infectious diseases and Lyme disease.

The union took over administration of health-care coverage for deputies and district attorney investigators 16 years ago because of spiraling costs and an inability to control the level of benefits, MacLeod said this week. The ability to handle health care for its members is a negotiated benefit that should be protected, he said.

"We can do a lot of things, because we're smaller, to manage costs," MacLeod said.

About 56% of the county's deputies select the most expensive of the three available health-care plans, but are exposed to higher deductibles.

Other county employees pay deductibles at least twice what deputies pay.

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