Westmoreland County controller critical of new workers compensation insurance contract
Westmoreland County Controller Jeffrey Balzer on Friday said a decision by county commissioners to rehire a private insurance company was a “sham.”
Commissioners this week unanimously voted to approve a one-year, $1.09 million contract to the Housing and Redevelopment Insurance Exchange to oversee and pay out large workers’ compensation claims.
In March, commissioners ended a two-year deal with the same firm, saying it was too expensive. It paid the company for an additional three months, ending in June, as commissioners said the county would transition to a self-insurance program.
But, the deal approved Thursday essentially rescinded that change of course.
The new contract, which is effective as of Oct. 1, calls for all workers compensation claims under $25,000 to be paid by the county with the company covering all larger payouts. In 2017 and 2018 the firm was paid $1.69 million annually to pay out all worker compensation benefits.
Balzer has been critical of the commissioner’s decision two years ago to turn over its workers compensation program to the Harrisburg-based firm and on Friday said politics and not practicality was the reason for this week’s reversal.
“This reeks of behavior everyone thinks is going on in government and this is what we’re trying to stop,” Balzer said.
The company is a nonprofit consortium of housing authorities in Pennsylvania that operates as an insurance provider for local governments and agencies. According to campaign finance records, the company’s president, Charles Volpe, has donated to the re-election campaigns of all three county commissioners.
Commissioners defended their decision.
“Continuing workmen’s compensation insurance with our current insurer is the best option for the county. All three county commissioners agreed that this was the best course of action to protect our county as reflected in Thursday’s vote. I continue to believe that we made the right decision three years ago to no longer be self-insured,” Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli said.
Commissioner Ted Kopas, who two years ago opposed the firm’s hiring, called the new contract a compromise between private and self insurance.
“This is a much better deal than the one I opposed. This is considerably cheaper and I’m happy with the change,” Kopas said.
Commissioner Charles Anderson, who is retiring at year’s end, denied that politics and support from a campaign contributor played a role in his decision.
“I looked at the contract and it made sense to me and it was the best deal for the county,” Anderson said.
Balzer said his objection to the contract was based on financial concerns. He said most of the claims paid out to workers are for less than a $25,000 deductible built into the deal, meaning the county will pay those cheaper claims itself on top of the million dollars paid out to the private insurance company.
And he suggested the commissioners vote was illegal and violated state’s Sunshine Law that governs public actions. Balzer said the vote was improper because was not listed on a preliminary meeting agenda published earlier in the week. Instead, it was added to the agenda just minutes before the start of Thursday’s commissioners’ business meeting.
“This is really a sham. It is rare that agenda items get a true debate in public view. Only in rare cases does dissent occur and only in the form of a no vote and maybe some discussion on the motion,” Balzer said.
Balzer said he is considering filing a legal challenge against the commissioners based on a potential Sunshine Law violation.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association, said the commissioners’ vote likely did not violate state law.
“There is no agenda requirement in the Sunshine Law,” Melewsky said. “We’d like to see one because we would like to see agencies provide agendas that are more specific. They should at least be made public 24 hours in advance to let folks know what’s being voted on.”
Balzer proposed the enactment of county ordinances that require all action items be published 48 hours before scheduled votes and that commissioners be required to disclose two years of political contributions by would-be county vendors before contracts are awarded. He also called for all commissioner agenda and business meetings to be streamed over the internet.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .