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Large, angry crowd expected for PEIA rate hike hearing Tuesday

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Large, angry crowd expected for PEIA rate hike hearing Tuesday
By Phil Kabler, Statehouse Reporter, WV Gazette-Mail

Statewide public hearings on the proposed $120 million in benefits cuts for Public Employees Insurance Agency coverage come to Charleston Tuesday evening, where a large and angry crowd can be expected, based on the first two hearings last week.

With no increase in the state’s funding of $422.4 million for PEIA employer premiums, and no ability under the law to independently raise employee premiums, the PEIA Finance Board proposed what executive director Ted Cheatham has called “draconian” cuts in benefits, raising deductibles, co-pays, out-of-pocket maximums, and increasing deductibles and cost-sharing for prescription drugs.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, who attended the first two hearings, said PEIA insurees are irate over the proposed cuts.

“You can’t keep cutting and cutting, and expect the employees to bear the brunt of the cost,” he said.

Lee said the constant theme has been that state and public school employees cannot afford the significant increases in deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket maximums in the proposed plan.

“More and more young teachers are standing up at these meetings, saying, ‘I can’t afford to stay in West Virginia,’” he said.

Lee said that could include his daughter, who has been a teacher in Mercer County for six years.

“I don’t know how I can continue to say to her, you need to stay in West Virginia,” he said.

Lee said crowds at the first two hearings were unusually large, with more than 300 in Morgantown — a standing room only crowd that was limited by the size of the meeting room — and about 400 in Martinsburg.

Cheatham said his impression was that teachers and retirees made up the large majority of both crowds, and said there were common themes to both meetings:
•  Increased health care costs will make it difficult for many to balance their household budgets, with many afraid they will not have enough money to pay household costs and utilities, buy food and pay higher prescription drug costs.

•  The benefit cuts will make it more difficult for the state and public schools to attract and retain employees, since comparatively low pay is no longer offset by generous health care and retirement plans. In Martinsburg, Cheatham said, several public employees said they would consider taking jobs in border states.

Lee said the only viable option is for the state to increase funding for PEIA, noting, “This is the fifth year coming up that they will not have put any additional funding into PEIA.”

Although recognizing that state revenues are lagging, Lee said it will be imperative during the 2016 legislative session that PEIA receive additional state funding.
“The governor and the Legislature are going to have to step up on this,” he said.

Tuesday’s public hearing will be at the Civic Center Little Theater from 6 to 8 p.m. Registration and customer service tables will be open from 5 to 6 p.m.

The PEIA Finance Board will meet Dec. 3 to approve the 2016-17 benefit plan.