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Waiting for Task Force Recommendations, PEIA Finance Board Delays Meetings

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By: Phil Kabler, Charleston Gazette-Mail

In a holding pattern while waiting for recommendations from the PEIA Task Force, the PEIA Finance Board on Wednesday announced that it is canceling the board’s Nov. 15 meeting, and pushing a series of statewide public hearings on its proposed 2019-20 benefits plan back to mid-December.

The meeting and public hearings have been delayed on the apparent expectation that the PEIA Task Force, created by Gov. Jim Justice in February to find a “fix, not a freeze” for the public employee health insurance program, will push right up to a Dec. 11 deadline to submit its recommendations.

“I think they’re just waiting so the public can comment on it,” Administration spokeswoman Samantha Knapp said of the announcement.

The public hearings to comment on any proposed changes to the plan, originally slated to take place from mid-November to early December, are now scheduled to begin Dec. 12, although times, dates and locations for the hearings had not been finalized as of Wednesday.
 
The PEIA Finance Board meeting has been rescheduled for Dec. 20.

The 29-member task force, which first met on March 13, has been on something of a hiatus recently.

The Task Force’s Coverage and Plan subcommittee last met on Oct. 29, its first session following two months of inactivity, and is scheduled to meet again on Nov. 15. At its last meeting, the panel discussed issues with costs for out-of-state providers and with rising prescription drug costs, and approved one recommendation for the final report to the Legislature.

The other key subcommittee, Cost and Revenue, whose duties include coming up with a revenue source to stabilize PEIA funding, has not met since Aug. 24, and currently has no meetings scheduled.

A third subcommittee, on Public Outreach, completed its work on Aug. 16, submitting a 22-page report summarizing comments from 21 public hearings statewide, along with summaries of more than 3,000 surveys completed by PEIA insurees.

The lack of activity by the Task Force prompted Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who also serves on the Task Force, to send a letter to Justice demanding an explanation, and calling for him to schedule subcommittee meetings as quickly as possible.

“I am concerned that with cancellation of this meeting, we are losing valuable time in working towards a solution,” Blair wrote after a scheduled Sept. 18 Task Force meeting was canceled without explanation. “The members of this Task Force, as well as the West Virginia educators, school service personnel, and public employees have invested a great deal of time and effort contributing to the process of finding a viable resolution to this issue.”

In October, Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, who also is a Task Force member, declared, “The Task Force has become a task farce. It’s clear, nothing is going to get done before the election — and that’s by design.”

Normally, the PEIA Finance Board meets in mid-November to tentatively approve a draft benefits plan for the next budget year, prior to putting the plan out to public hearings.

Initially, Task Force members expressed hope the panel could complete its recommendations prior to that Finance Board meeting.

PEIA provides health insurance coverage for some 230,000 West Virginians, covering state employees, teachers, school service personnel, and certain county, municipal and nonprofit agency employees.

Justice created the Task Force by executive order on Feb. 28 — at the height of the statewide teachers’ walkout — pledging to find a “fix, not a freeze” for seemingly annual premium increases and benefit cuts for the health insurance plan. At the first meeting of the Task Force in March, he told the panel, “I’m wanting you to find a solution, and not wanting it to take forever.”