City hears from Watkins before hiring new agent for health insurance

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The Mineola City Council on Feb. 25 decided to convene a special work session to hear from Watkins Insurance regarding employee health insurance for fiscal 2019-20. A workshop was set for Tuesday evening.

The action came after a lively give-and-take on whether Watkins Insurance had been given adequate opportunity to make a presentation to the council. Also, council members agreed that a full body should be seated before voting on something as consequential as health insurance, which cost the city roughly $500,000 last fiscal year. Alderwoman Novada Bigham was absent from the Feb. 25 meeting. A new health insurance plan must be in place by Oct. 1.

Former Mineola Mayor Rodney Watkins, president of Watkins Insurance Group-East Texas, told The Monitor that he intends to attend the workshop and address any questions or concerns the council may have. Watkins said he’s had cordial and open discussions with City Manager Mercy Rushing.

At the Feb. 25 meeting, Rushing and Finance Manager Cindy Karch recommended moving forward on what they see as a cost-effective proposal by Brinson Benefits Inc., a Dallas company that made a pitch to the council in late January. Should the council engage its services, Brinson would replace Watkins Insurance as the city’s health insurance agent of record and negotiate on behalf of the city for health care coverage, the city’s second largest expense after payroll.

The city signed on with Watkins Insurance in 2017, and Rushing noted that the company came through in a pinch and identified considerable savings for the city. According to Watkins, the savings amounted to about $150,000 over two years.

Still, Rushing and Karch indicated that Brinson may offer lower costs in the years ahead.

“Our job is to do due diligence on everything,” including health insurance coverage, Rushing told the council. Brinson would charge the city $24,996 for its services with no further management fees, according to a staff memorandum. As the city’s agent of record, Watkins currently charges $31,800. However, two additional health insurance companies involved with the city, Benecon and Meratain, charge separate management fees of $16,710 and $20,688, respectively, for a combined cost of $69,198 in fees, or $44,202 more than what Brinson promises.

The recommendation to proceed with Brinson did not sit well with Alderman Greg Hollen, who argued that “it is highly unusual to enter into this kind of arrangement in the middle of a program year.” Insurance shopping generally is done 60 to 90 days from when a contract expires, he indicated.

“Give the incumbent (Watkins Insurance) the same opportunity that you gave to someone who walked through the door,” Hollen said, adding that Watkins should have the same ability to review Brinson’s proposal as Brinson had in reviewing Watkins’ numbers. “My belief is the incumbent deserves at least that from this council, before you vote to move on to someone else.”

Rushing said she talked to Rod Watkins after Brinson’s presentation because she wanted him to be aware of it. She gave Watkins the proposal that Brinson made. “I didn’t have to, but I did out of respect, because I do think a lot of Watkins” and she generally wants to keep business local.

“But it’s not about that. It’s about bringing y’all numbers that are out there based on what they (Brinson) said they would do,” Rushing said.

At one point in the proceeding, Alderwoman Jayne Lankford remarked: “Rod Watkins would be the first to say this is not the good old boy system anymore; this is what is best for our city.”

As for acting on the insurance issue now instead of later in the year, Rushing said the council last year instructed the administration to begin working on insurance in March. “We were just doing what we were told to do,” she said.

Noting the council was a member short, Alderwoman Sue Jones said, “This is a big decision, and I think all council members need to have input and need to have information directly – not indirectly.”

Alderman Mitchell Tuck took a similar position, adding that whatever course the council takes must be in the best interest of the city.

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