Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Offers of insurance pour in

Teachers promised better deal

By Karen Gutierrez
Enquirer staff writer

Insurance agents are turning Kentucky's health-benefits crisis into a business opportunity.

Over the last month, they have blitzed schools with fliers and called superintendents to set up meetings.

The pitch: We may be able to offer you and your workers cheaper health insurance than you can get through your own employer, the state of Kentucky.

"Everybody thinks it's open season," said W.C. Stewart, an insurance agent in Fort Wright. "All of a sudden, all these schools were getting flooded with faxes from insurance brokers."

Behind the frenzy are record-high insurance rates for Kentucky's 170,000 state employees, including school-district staff. Next year, they may pay as much as $600 a month for family coverage, compared with about $75 a month in many Southwest Ohio school districts.

Outrage over the situation led to a day of protests last month, with four Northern Kentucky school districts canceling classes.

Now teachers are threatening a strike, and the General Assembly is special session to address the crisis.

Even if next year's premiums are held at current levels, as some legislators are advocating, many employees have discovered they can save money by getting private insurance.

"That's what we're going to do," said Erlanger district employee Brian Sweasy of his family.

For next year, Sweasy will drop his wife from his family plan, he said. She'll get an individual policy through W.C. Stewart & Associates, and the family will save $150 a month

Sweasy is happy to find a better deal but angry at the situation.

"It's bad for the state," he said. "What's happening is all these healthy people are getting their own policies for less, and what's left are the sickest people."

It's true, experts say. Group insurance works by spreading the risk among the healthy, the sick and everyone in between. If the state's pool is skewed toward the sick, its costs will continue to rise.

Agents have sent fliers to, for instance, Lloyd High School in Erlanger, asking that they be posted for staff to see. Principal John Riehemann threw away the ads, but he may reconsider if next year's plan doesn't improve.

"It's just business," Riehemann said. "If I could save $200 a month and get better coverage, it's not a bad thing at all."

In Pendleton County, insurance agent Debbie Sharp worried about looking too opportunistic.

One of her weekly ads in the Falmouth newspaper encouraged state employees to call for rate estimates, and she has presented options to about 20 people so far, she said. But she declined to send fliers to Pendleton County schools, even though the superintendent's office said it was OK.

With so many workers upset, "I didn't want to appear like I'm a vulture or an ambulance chaser," Sharp said.

In Campbell County, Superintendent Anthony Strong fielded several calls from agents wanting an audience with staff. He met with one company, Affordable Insurance Services of Alexandria, but broker George Brumley hasn't had time to follow up.

About a month ago, Brumley called a Louisville radio show to give his opinion on the insurance crisis, identifying himself only by name and occupation.

The show was heard by the union president for the Kentucky State Police, who tracked down Brumley through his mother's phone number in Alexandria.

Ever since, Brumley has been crisscrossing the state, discussing insurance alternatives with police officers.

E-mail kgutierrez@enquirer.com

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