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Preckwinkle to judges: Pay up for health insurance
Move aims to save $4 million a year

Monday, October 07, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Circuit Court judges who have been paying less than $1 a month for health insurance would see their payments soar under a cost-cutting plan County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed Monday.

Judges have been getting the sweet deal for at least three decades due to how they're paid and a policy that allows them into the county health plan. All but $500 of a judge's $182,429-a-year salary is paid by the state, an oddity that results in judges paying infinitesimal health insurance premiums under a county formula that bases the costs on annual pay from the county.

Preckwinkle wants the hundreds of judges on the bench to pay the entire cost of their health coverage, which would range between $440 and $1,700 a month if they want to stay on the county plan. The judges also could ditch the county's coverage and sign up for state health insurance at a lower cost. By way of comparison, county employees whose full salary is paid by the county pay up to $112 a month for insurance coverage.

"We want to ensure that county employees and officials have access to health benefits, but the approach has to be fair and it needs to make sense financially," Preckwinkle said in a statement. "We're taking reasonable steps to improve how we manage the county's benefits."

The proposed change comes as Preckwinkle has been at odds with Chief Judge Timothy Evans over how to best hasten the pace of justice in the county's courtrooms and reduce the number of people kept in the County Jail at $143 a day. Preckwinkle recently made a successful request for the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene in the dispute.

Preckwinkle spokesman Owen Kilmer said the dispute and health insurance changes are "absolutely not" related. A spokeswoman for Evans said the chief judge's office became aware of the proposal Monday through a news release and was "gathering facts" before responding.

The change, estimated to save about $4 million annually, is part of the 2014 budget proposal that Preckwinkle plans to unveil Thursday. The budget is subject to change by the 17-member County Board, but Preckwinkle has been largely successful in getting commissioners to approve her initiatives.

Preckwinkle has estimated the 2014 funding gap at $152 million. About $97 million of that was eliminated by changes to the county's vast public health system as a result of the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

That leaves Preckwinkle with the task of closing a $55 million hole in the rest of the budget. Last week, she pledged not to increase taxes, fees or fines after the county did so last year.

Other employees who don't get full-time pay and would be affected by the change include three members of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and about two dozen part-time, seasonal school crossing guards. The guards could end up having to find coverage through Obamacare.

In all, about 400 people would be affected. The vast majority would be judges.

Preckwinkle's proposal also would eliminate flexible spending accounts for about 260 judges enrolled in county HMOs. Those accounts for judges cost the county about $288,000 last year.

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