Sex Change Surgery Is Beside the Point

The City of Berkeley Should Be Spending Its Time on Other, More Relevent Fiscal Issues

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Sex change surgery is beside the point when examining the city of Berkeley's budget and its employee health care program.

The city has a "Rolls-Royce" plan that would astound and create envy in 99.9 percent of Americans - rich, poor or middle class. For the basic plan, employees pay nothing and receive their benefits tax-free. In some cases, employees actually receive cash in lieu of coverage.

I refer interested and concerned readers to the City of Berkeley Consent Calendar, item number five, on Nov. 16, 2010.

For families of active employees, the city pays up to the Kaiser rate of $16,900 annually. For families of pre-Medicare retirees, the city pays roughly $29,000 annually. For retiree families, the city pays nearly $18,000 annually. The payments for single and two-party households are of course lower, but still astronomical. Beneficiaries who choose pricier Health Net coverage plans pay the difference out of pocket. For retirees, the city has paid, since 1988, premium increases of up to 4.5 percent annually.

The scope of employee Kaiser coverage is apparently limitless. For active employees and pre-Medicare retirees, there is $0 co-pay for office visits and $5 prescription co-pay. For post-retirees the office visit co-pay rises to $5 and the prescription co-pay stays at $5.

My take on health care reform, shared by most other commentators, is that reasonable co-pays discourage abuse of the system by providers and patients, and of course promote sensible cost containment.

We also know that physical fitness absolutely promotes good health. City employees receive subsidized gym membership at the Downtown YMCA at a cost of roughly $230,000 annually. Does the city even know how many employees use this valuable benefit? To my knowledge, there has been no serious effort to encourage or require at-risk employees to use this benefit.

Then there is the cash-out issue. The point of health insurance is to address health issues, not to enrich employees. I briefly worked for the city about 10 years ago and was amazed to learn that I could take my health benefits in cash since I was insured through my then-husband. I cannot recall whether this cash was tax-free but it may well have been. This wasteful policy is, to the extent of my knowledge, still operative so that some number of otherwise-insured beneficiaries are literally cashing-in. Can the city provide this number and the dollar cost? Perhaps this "free" money should be used for borderline coverages in elective surgery and mental health.

I really wish that the public and the press would not get distracted by push-button issues such as sex-change surgeries, but would instead do the harder work of reading, thinking and analyzing the very serious structural issues facing our communities.

Barbara Gilbert is a Berkeley resident. Reply to [email protected]

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