Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Commissioners on Tuesday made changes to its vision benefits plan and approved a 5% increase in premiums for the county's employee benefits plan. The increase includes employees, spouses and children.

“We've continued to see an increase in our pharmacy claims, though we're leveling off. We hope to see an actual decrease next year,” said Erica Grinde, the county's chief risk officer.

The county last year saw a significant increase in medical claims and increased its premiums by 10% as a result. Claims that year surpassed $12 million, up from the typical $9 million seen in other years.

This year's 5% increase is expected to help cover future claims. If it works to cover costs, the county could look at reducing any increases next year.

“We saw a significant increase in our medical claims in 2023 and we're still recovering in terms of the trust assets, which we hold to help pay for claims,” said Grinde. “This (increase) will keep the plan in a healthy place and hopefully make it so next year we can maintain 5%.”

To help address the slow rise costs, Grinde said the county is looking at its facility costs with both Providence St. Patrick and Community hospitals. The county said it wants to ensure that its facility costs at the two hospitals aren't out of line what they've been historically.

But like the county, hospitals are also fighting inflation, Grinde said.

“They have to consider what they're paying their staff, and that's really driving the increase in costs, because they need to be able to keep up with inflation,” she said. “That's what's inflating those costs in those facilities as well. We don't want to drive property taxes due to hospital costs getting passed on to the county.”

While the county looks to hold the line on its healthcare costs, it's also seeing changes in pharmaceuticals. The cost of medications hasn't significantly increased, Grinde said, though a growing number of pharmacy costs are being shifted to other parts of the medical plan.

The treatment of certain diseases, including cancer and immunotherapy, has changed. While it helps extend life, Grinde said, it comes with a cost.

“It's just changing where our costs live,” she said. “There's argument that if AI is contributing to the development of drugs, then patents don't apply. Healthcare has changed.”

The county on Tuesday also amended its vision plan and how it can be spent. The maximum $226 used to aid in the purchase of glasses or contact lenses, but not both.

“Now, if you're able to get contacts for $150, you can put your remaining $76 toward glasses. It's not going to have a dramatic impact on the plan,” Grinde said.