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Raucous crowd in Charleston tells Legislature to adequately fund PEIA

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Raucous crowd in Charleston tells Legislature to adequately fund PEIA
By Phil Kabler, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

A large, loud and raucous crowd of teachers, public employees and retirees had a clear message Tuesday for the Legislature: Come up with adequate funding for their health insurance coverage.

Tuesday’s public hearing of the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board at the Civic Center Little Theater was the fourth of six scheduled statewide this month.

Like previous hearings in Morgantown, Martinsburg and Wheeling, which also attracted unusually large and angry crowds, Tuesday’s crowd of more than 400 was irate over plans to cut PEIA benefits by more than $120 million.

“The Legislature needs to fix this problem. They need to adequately fund PEIA,” Joe White, executive director of the state School Service Personnel Association, told the board. “They need to provide affordable PEIA and not try to skin us alive.”

Fred Albert, president of the Kanawha County chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers and public employees are tired of being disrespected by the governor and Legislature.

“I tell you what should be at the top of their agenda: Fixing this mess,” he said. “I hope all legislators are listening to us — this is unacceptable.”

Going into a fifth straight year with no premium increases, after the governor’s office notified PEIA that the state will not increase its contribution of $422.4 million for employer premiums for the 2016-17 plan year, PEIA was left with few choices but to cut benefits, PEIA executive director Ted Cheatham said.

“I feel your pain, and I tell you, this board feels your pain,” he told the crowd. “However, we have to produce a plan that is fiscally sustainable.”

With its reserve fund spent down to the minimum recommended balance to stave off severe benefit cuts in previous years, Cheatham advised Finance Board members in October there is no choice but to make what he called “draconian” cuts to PEIA benefits.

The steep increases in co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums for medical and prescription drug coverage “could make it very difficult for some people on this plan” if they get sick or injured, Cheatham has conceded.

For some family plans, out-of-pocket maximums could jump to $9,000 a year for medical coverage, and $5,000 a year for prescription drug benefits.

Retirees covered by PEIA are facing an 8 percent premium hike, but with smaller increases in deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.

While speakers addressed their comments to the board members at Tuesday’s hearing, most directed their words to the Legislature.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, called the proposed cost increases a “slap in the face” to teachers, public employees and retirees.

“The state has once again reached into employees’ pockets to balance the budget,” Lee said, adding, “It’s time for us to tell the governor and the Legislature, enough is enough.”

Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers of West Virginia, said the increased health care costs will exacerbate already severe teacher shortages in parts of the state.

“We haven’t heard one word from the current leadership — the Senate President or the Speaker of the House — on these cuts,” she said. “It’s time to stand up and demand the Legislature provide quality health care by adequately funding PEIA.”

Putnam County teacher Rachelle Williams emotionally described how she will have to leave the state if the PEIA cost increases take effect, because her three-year-old daughter has a rare auto-inflammatory disease that requires costly medical treatment.

“All it’s going to take is one severe flare-up for my daughter to bankrupt us,” Williams said of the proposed plan’s high deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.

“Pass this change, and I’m out the door, and I guarantee there are hundreds of teachers who will be right behind me,” she said, one of many speakers drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

Only a handful of legislators attended the hearing.

One, Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, addressed the crowd, and said he had not fully comprehended the severity of the benefits cuts.

Walters said passing a state budget is about setting priorities, and said of the Legislature’s failure to increase PEIA funding for nearly five years, “It shows you have not been a priority.”

Walters said he supports a $1-a-pack increase in the state tobacco tax to raise $100 million a year, and also noted with dismay that the Legislature continues to provide upwards of $27 million a year in subsidies for greyhound racing.

“One of West Virginia’s biggest problems is our health, and cutting our state health insurance program is not the way to address that,” he said.

In theory, PEIA Finance Board members are to weigh proposals, suggestions or criticisms made at the hearings when they meet Dec. 3 to approve the 2016-17 benefits plan. However, unlike past years, the board has few options when it comes to cutting more than $120 million of benefits out of the nearly $1 billion-a-year health care program.