Pima County employees will lose one health insurance option and gain another one starting July 1. County retirees younger than 65, however, will be dropped from the county plan at the same time.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors ratified the decision that Administrator Chuck Huckelberry made earlier this year to remove the retirees from the health plan. By shifting those retirees who are not yet eligible for Medicare to the state retirement health insurance plan, the county will save millions of dollars on premiums for employees for the next two years, Huckelberry said.

Existing county employees will no longer have an HMO option, based on the supervisors' 3-2 party-line vote Tuesday. Employees will have the option to enroll in the existing PPO or high-deductible plans, or shift to a new high-deductible plan.

Retirees will get a letter from Huckelberry explaining why they will no longer get health coverage through a county plan, according to the vote.

If the county had kept offering health insurance to non-Medicare eligible retirees and kept the HMO option, taxpayers or employees would be forced to cover the $14.4 million increase in health insurance costs for the year starting July 1, Huckelberry said.

The discussion drew several retirees who said they are upset about losing their coverage to the more-expensive state plan. Supervisors Ray Carroll and Ann Day voted against the motion, which included dropping the retirees and changing the options for employees.

Carroll had been vocal about Huckelberry's decision, challenging the administrator to prove it was within his capacity to make that policy decision. He called for a public vote on the retirees' coverage last week, but the board waited to hold a private meeting with its attorney Tuesday.

At least part of the closed-door discussion involved whether the new federal health-care overhaul will provide a chance to keep county retirees covered.

Paul Zucarelli, a county health insurance consultant, said it's too soon to tell if the retiree provisions in the federal health law will apply to Pima County.

He cautioned the supervisors against reliance on a federal benefit because the program, in which the federal government will reimburse for a portion of expensive health-care claims for retirees, is still undefined and the county may not be eligible.

The supervisors wanted to know whether the county would fall into that program before they voted on the future of employee and retiree health care.

"No one will give you the answer you are looking for today," Zucarelli said.

Employee David Mitchell suggested the county try to become self-insured, even pooling an insurance program with other governments. "That way the county can save itself money, and people can be assured of appropriate health care and we will no longer be at the mercy of rapacious health-care companies," Mitchell said.