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Crowd vents frustrations at Martinsburg PEIA hearing

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Crowd vents frustrations at Martinsburg PEIA hearing
By Samantha Cronk, The Journal

MARTINSBURG -- Heated opinions were exchanged Tuesday as more than 300 residents attended a public hearing on proposed changes to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which affects any state-employed worker, such as teachers and school service personnel.

The PEIA finance board hosted a public hearing presentation on the proposed $120 million in cuts to benefits, totaling over $80 million for active employees and over $40 million for retirees. It would also increase premiums for retirees by eight percent and three percent for non-state public workers.

Through the changes, deductibles will also increase, resulting in a $500 increase for a worker on an individual plan and $1,000 for those on a family plan. Additionally, out-of-pocket maximum expenses will increase $1,500 for single and $3,000 for family. Prescription drug deductibles, monthly cost sharing and out-of-pocket maximums will increase.

Several attendees said the deductible increases were of the greatest concern, stating that it will likely prevent them from seeking medical attention when ill.

"You say with our insurance we're going to lose? The salary that we make, it's low, how can we pay for some of the things or the medical needs that we have? It's so sad to hear this when you give your life to education and then you retire, you have nothing. Most people, that's when you get sick, as you get older," said Selena Williams, a Jefferson County teacher since 1982.

Board members stated the reason for the changes to PEIA benefits was the state is not anticipating providing any additional funding, making it the fifth year of no additional funds.

Rachel Coven, organizational development specialist for the West Virginia Education Association, said the public hearing was a first step toward applying pressure to the state Legislature to increasing funding for benefits.

"Tonight is about workers' rights to healthcare. That it's affordable and that it supports them in what should be the best way possible. These cuts will not do that. These cuts will destroy what those of the Eastern Panhandle have worked so hard for. It's not good for education, and what's not good for education isn't good for the future of West Virginia," Coven said.

Several public speakers during the event encouraged audience members to write to state legislators requesting additional monies be provided to PEIA. Storm Shiley, Jefferson County teacher and American Federation of Teachers union member, encouraged all those attending the meeting to contact legislature members and express their concerns.

"I know this is like shooting the messenger, because this is out of (the PEIA finance board's) hands. There are over 300 in this room. The PEIA finance board is who we speak to tonight, but at the end of the day, the reason we're in this predicament is because of our legislature," she said.

"We need that repeat of information to go to them because they are the ones that give us money into our account. What other system do you know that has over 3,000 new employees but has not paid a dime into the insurance in the last five years," she said.

Tuesday night's public hearing was the second out of six meetings the PEIA finance board will attend throughout the state.