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Employees, retirees speak out about proposed insurance cuts

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By Phil Kabler, Staff writer

State employees and retirees vented their displeasure with the Public Employees Insurance Agency’s proposal to cut their health insurance benefits by a total of $40 million during a public hearing Thursday evening at the Charleston Civic Center.

“It is similar to asking us if we want to be in a head-on collision, or get T-boned on the highway,” Joe White, with the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said of asking employees which benefit cuts they prefer.In a theme common among nearly 30 speakers Thursday, White said public employees cannot afford higher co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses, as proposed by PEIA.

“We need to reach out to the new Legislature to request additional funding,” he said, calling on PEIA Finance Board members who attended the hearing, “Let us go together and ask for the proper funding.”

The hearing, the last of six held around the state over the past two weeks, gave PEIA insurees the opportunity to speak out on a menu of options proposed by the PEIA Finance Board to cut the agency’s health insurance costs by $40 million next year.

Department of Administration spokeswoman Diane Holley-Brown said the previous hearings, in Beckley, Huntington, Martinsburg, Morgantown and Wheeling, each drew an average of between 100 to 150 people.

Thursday’s attendance was comparatively sparse, with about 100 people in the center’s Little Theater.Christine Stephens told board members she struggles now to get by on disability retirement, often going to Mountain Mission to get enough food to get through each month, and cannot afford higher co-pays and deductibles. “What am I supposed to use to eat? To pay for prescriptions?” she asked.

Fred Albert, with the Kanawha County chapter of the American Federation of Teachers/West Virginia, said the benefit cuts will make it even harder to recruit quality teachers to public schools.

“It’s no secret in this room that we have a crisis in public education in this state,” he said, adding, “ Please don’t take away. We need what we have and then some.”

PEIA executive director Ted Cheatham has said the cuts are necessary because PEIA has spent down its reserve fund to its minimum acceptable balance. Also, premium increases are off the table, since the governor’s proposed 2015-16 state budget does not include funding for increases in employers’ share of premiums, required to maintain a mandatory 80-20 split between employer and employee premiums.

Instead, the Finance Board in October approved a menu of possible benefit cuts needed to reduce benefits by $30 million for active employees, $3 million for county and municipal employees covered by PEIA, $4.5 million for pre-65 retirees and $4 million for Medicare retirees.

“Nobody wants these cuts -- nobody,” Cheatham told the audience Thursday. “Tell me what works best for you.” For current employees, the menu of options includes increasing out-of-pocket maximums for family coverage, increasing deductibles, increasing primary care office visit co-pays by $5 to $20, increasing specialist office co-pays by $15 to $40, doubling the outpatient surgery co-pay to $100, doubling the Urgent Care visit co-pay to $50, increasing co-pays or coinsurance for prescription drugs, eliminating coverage for massage therapy and for removal of impacted wisdom teeth, among other options.

Cheatham is also proposing a Healthy Tomorrows program, in which insurees would have to reach certain benchmarks for healthy lifestyles, or have their annual deductible increased by $500.In the first year, the benchmark would simply require having a primary care physician.

In the second year, insurees would also have to report their blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels, and waist circumference. By the third year, insurees would have to meet reporting thresholds of blood pressure at or below 140/90, glucose at or under 125, and cholesterol at or under 245, or have a doctor’s statement explaining why those thresholds could not be achieved, to avoid the higher deductible.

Wood County schoolteacher Bruce Boston referenced that program in raising his objections to PEIA’s proposals.“If I don’t get these frustrations out, my blood pressure is going to go up, and I’m going to get a $500 penalty, and as a schoolteacher, I can’t afford $500,” he said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.

In addition to public hearings, PEIA members can complete an on-line survey regarding the benefits cuts at the agency’s website, www.peia.wv.gov, through Nov. 30. About 3,600 employees have completed the survey to date, Holley-Brown said.

The Finance Board will vote on the program changes at its Dec. 9 meeting. PEIA provides health insurance for about 220,000 West Virginians.