Lansing joins effort to fix employee health benefits

Schor: Access to prescription medicine ‘critical’ for city staff

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The City of Lansing this week joined Ingham County in its efforts to tweak employee health insurance benefits after officials discovered that name-brand HIV treatment and other drugs were excluded from coverage.

City Pulse last week reported on the “unconscious bias” that some county commissioners contended was embedded within a self-funded employee health insurance pool that covers employees of Ingham County, Lansing and the Community Mental Health Authority. An investigation into the concerns continues.

Among the problems uncovered last week: Employees, without being forced to seek specific insurance exceptions and repeatedly disclose their private medical histories, are unable to access name-brand prescription medication for HIV and other doctor-prescribed drugs that are designed to facilitate gender transitions.

And now officials in both Lansing and Ingham County are working to patch the coverage gaps.

“It’s critical that people have access to the medicine they need,” said Lansing Mayor Andy Schor in a statement.

Officials said this year’s shift to a self-funded insurance pool is saving Ingham County about $2 million annually, but the changeover also came with a new list of excluded medications. Among those are Botox, drugs to induce abortions, anabolic steroids, sexual dyfunction medication and other cosmetic items like hair growth products.

But, for reasons still unknown by county and city officials, that list also specifically prohibits name-brand HIV drugs and treatment for gender dysphoria. The results of an Ingham County investigation into the issue is expected to be released this week and could shed more light on what solutions are available — and at what cost.

“Access to HIV medication already comes with unnecessary stigma and high costs,” said Lansing City Council Vice President Peter Spadafore, who raised the issue at Monday’s Council meeting “because I wanted to make sure that our employees are provided the lifesaving medication they need without jumping through unnecessary hoops.”

Name-brand HIV treatment medication, as officials previously explained, is often behind the curve of constantly evolving research on the virus. Drugs that aren’t on the cutting edge of medical technology often include a host of negative side effects and can lend to substandard treatment for county and city employees.

And because the FDA has yet to formally approve any method of hormonal transition treatment for transgender patients, all medication for gender dysphoria is prohibited under the shared insurance plan as well. As a result, municipal employees have been cut off from accessing those drugs without a formal exception.

While Ingham County officials continue to investigate their next steps, officials in Lansing are also planning to begin searching for an alternative healthcare consultant as early as next month. City officials still can’t promise that some medications won’t remain excluded from future coverage, but efforts to bridge the gap are under way.

“We will not select a carrier that includes language that — for all intents and purposes — is discriminatory,” said Lansing DeputyMayor Samantha Harkins. “Sometimes, with the high cost of drugs, there will be things that are not covered, but we’re not going to have something that includes this same list of exclusions for our employees.”

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