Legislative leaders quick to criticize PEIA benefit reduction

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Legislative leaders quick to criticize PEIA benefit reduction
By Shauna Johnson, WV MetroNews

Senate President Bill Cole (R-Mercer, 06), is among those moving quickly to criticize the $120 million in benefit reductions members of the Public Employees Insurance Agency’s Finance Board approved this week for state workers and retirees.

With the Thursday vote, Cole, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, said in a statement the board “voted unanimously to shift the burden of their failure to rest squarely upon the shoulders of the Legislature.”

House Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha, 40) agreed with Cole’s statement on Friday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

“I’m disappointed,” he said of the PEIA vote. “It’s the same old passing (of) the buck that’s got us in the same situation we are (in) financially in West Virginia.”

The benefit reductions, currently scheduled to take effect in July, will affect more than 200,000 state workers and retirees.

As it stands now, active workers face higher co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums while paying more for prescription drugs. For retirees, there are added drug costs along with premium increases of eight percent.

The planned health benefit reductions would be abandoned, according to PEIA officials, if Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and lawmakers allocate the needed $120 million to the agency.

On a separate front, the Board is also sending a letter to the Legislature asking for an addition to the state’s tobacco tax to generate the money needed to fill that funding hole.

“West Virginia taxpayers will not be left to hold the bag for the bad decisions and poor management of the political status quo, including this PEIA Finance Board,” Cole pledged.

In his view, PEIA’s funding problems have “festered” and been “ignored” for the last five years.

“Its inaction (the PEIA Finance Board) and spending down of its reserves, while pretending this issue would magically repair itself, is directly responsible for the situation we find ourselves in today,” Cole’s statement said.

Tomblin must offer a “workable” solution that does not raise taxes on families, according to Cole.

“I am upset about it,” Armstead said. “We’re working on it and it’s going to be a difficult situation, as I’ve said, but it’s something we are having discussions about with the Governor’s Office, trying to solve it, rather than use it for a political football.”

The 2016 Regular Legislative Session begins on Jan. 13 at the State Capitol.