City officials want old health care provider back

City council votes to return to Regence company Monday

By Will Campbell, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

In January, the city of Vancouver signed with a new health care provider, aiming to save money. But now, eight months later, city officials are unhappy with the service and want to switch back to the previous provider.

Debby Watts, human resources benefits analyst for the city of Vancouver, said the new insurance provider called HealthSmart gave city employees misinformation, such as saying they weren’t covered for acupuncture. She said HealthSmart sometimes gave wrong deductible numbers and it had long wait times on the phone — 10 minutes in some cases.

“We gave them all the opportunities to improve,” Watts said. “It just wasn’t getting any better.”

The city also paid more than planned because doctors through the old plan, Regence, would cost more on the new one; people wanted their old doctors.

Watts said there was more of a difference in provider options than they were expecting, costing the city more.

Phil Christianson, CEO of HealthSmart, said the Texas-based company is taking actions to prevent problems like this in the future. “We’re doing everything and more to help transition the plan back to Regence and we’re sorry for our problems for which we’re responsible,” Christianson said.

After problems with HealthSmart began in January, Watts said representatives HealthSmart repeatedly told her they would improve the training of their staff who were giving misinformation.

But Watts said it didn’t improve. And she said she received many complaints from city staff about HealthSmart.

Rewinding to November 2016, the city’s Health Care Benefit Program Governing Board, which Watts serves on, made the decision to switch to HealthSmart on January 1, 2017, on a three-year contract. It was supposed to save the city about 22 percent of the cost of the old plan with Regence BlueCross BlueShield, a Portland-based company. The city had been with Regence for more than 20 years before the switch to HealthSmart.

Watts said the city actually saved 9 percent annually, or $26,000. About 440 employees use it; the cost would have been $266,000 annually, according to Watts.

Watts said HealthSmart also allowed the city more flexibility in negotiating costs with vendors, as opposed to Regence’s system of bundling vendors.

There was no cancellation fee from HealthSmart, according to Watts.

Lloyd Tyler, chairman of the city board that made the decision, said HealthSmart was supposed to be a benefit.

“It was more of a bother,” Tyler said.

The new contract with Regence will last until 2020 with pre-negotiated terms. It will cost the city about $254,000 annually, according to Watts.

The city council will vote to make the final decision Monday.

If it’s passed, the change back to Regence will happen on September 1.