Each year Cook County spends about $500 million on employee benefits.
Of that money, about $300 million goes toward health care for the county's 24,000 employees. The rest goes toward their retirement.
A change in that mix, say some county commissioners, could head off a crisis in pension funding without raising taxes or cutting benefits.
In a meeting with the Daily Herald editorial board Wednesday, Bridget Gainer, the 10th District Democrat who heads a panel studying the pension issue, and Republican Tim Schneider, of the 15th District, said a solution could involve evening out the amount of money spent on health care and retirement, with $250 million being spent on each. Employees, in turn, would be expected to pay an extra 1 percent of their pay each year for health care.
The commissioners also are considering a raise in the retirement age and a decrease in the amount of money a retiree receives annually in the cost-of-living adjustment.
Currently, about $14,000 is spent on health care per county employee annually, but workers contribute only $706 to that amount each year, the commissioners said.
Schneider said this is too little to encourage employees to be participants in their own health care.
"They need to buy into wellness for themselves," he said. "They'll live longer, they'll be healthier, there will be less workers' comp claims."
He added that he would also like to see more county employees utilizing county health care facilities in hopes that too would lessen costs.
Gainer added, "To spend a billion dollars on a health system and then spend $300 million on employee health care and never try to leverage one for the other seems to be a real missed opportunity."
The commissioners emphasized that change needs to happen sooner rather than later.
"We don't want to get to a crisis," Schnider said, adding that he understands people hate change and that some taxpayers don't think the problems are real.
The two are hoping to gain the support of the state legislature during the veto session in November, as no pension reform plan can go forward without the legislature's approval.
In the meantime, Schneider and Gainer said they will continue to spread their ideas and listen to feedback from various civic organizations, county residents and employees.
"I think most people are fair-minded about this," Gainer said, adding that she felt response to their ideas so far has been positive. "They understand that a job at the hospital or the job at the jail ... they're important, they're hard jobs.
"They want people to have a dignified retirement, but they know that we still need to find a way forward that is fair to everybody, taxpayers as well as workers."
For more information on the plan, visit openpensions.org.