Rick Wilson: PEIA change threatens economic health of vital workers

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Rick Wilson: PEIA change threatens economic health of vital workers
For the Charleston Gazette-Mail

If you work for a living in West Virginia AND if you sometimes feel like there’s a target painted on your back these days, there’s at least a little good news: you’re probably not clinically paranoid.

Construction workers and apprentices have been targeted in efforts to repeal the state’s prevailing wage on public construction projects. Last year, some safety measures for underground coal miners were rolled back. Union workers in the private sector — and their non-union counterparts — will take a major hit if the misnamed “right to work” bill gets pushed through.

Next up: public employees and their families.

Around 233,000 West Virginians, or almost 13 percent of the state population, receive health care through the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). This includes eligible state workers, their dependents, and retirees as well as some county and city employees.

We’re talking state troopers, teachers and school service personnel, educators and others in the state college and university system, corrections officers, highway workers, local law enforcement, social service providers, etc.

They are now facing $120 million in “draconian” benefit cuts. These include higher co-pays, out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles and all that. Retirees on fixed incomes could be among those hit the hardest.

(Historical note: Draco, from whom the term “draconian” is derived, was an Athenian lawmaker of the 7th century BC known for his harshness. Under his system, you could get killed for stealing a cabbage. When asked why his laws were so brutal, he said that if he could think of a penalty harsher than death, he’d have used it. But I digress…)

Republican legislative leaders are apparently angry that the PEIA board recommended that the Legislature appropriate money to cushion the blow. Some have tried to shift the blame to the “bad decisions” and “poor management” of the board itself.

That dog, in the parlance of our time, don’t hunt.

Really it seems to come down to basic arithmetic:

n The number of people covered increases every year (over 3,600 since 2011).

n Health care inflation has gone up by no less than six percent per year (around $60 million annually some years).

n The Legislature hasn’t voted to put any additional funding into the system since 2011.

n Since 2011, PEIA relied on reserves to make up the difference. That’s no longer possible since these are now at their lowest legal minimum.

By law, PEIA premiums are set at 80 percent for the employer and 20 percent for the employee. They can’t legally raise premium rates unless funding is increased to meet that ratio.

One obvious partial solution would be to increase taxes on tobacco products, a measure that has been proposed by the likes of both longtime Republican delegate Frank Deem and Senate Minority Leader (and candidate for governor) Jeff Kessler.

Unlike health care costs, taxes on tobacco haven’t gone up since 2003.

It remains to be seen whether that measure will gain any traction with the leadership in the coming session.

Meanwhile, it’s no wonder that with low pay and lowering benefits it’s going to be hard to get and keep motivated employees.

MetroNews reported in December that there were nearly 600 teacher vacancies in West Virginia. In this time of transition, we need good teachers more than ever. At this rate, though, more and more young and talented teachers will leave the state.

Corrections officers are paid near poverty wages and frequently have to work double shifts with forced overtime in very stressful conditions, a situation that has led to high turnover and hundreds of unfilled vacancies. Those are just two examples.

It’s good to remember that the people who will be affected by these cuts put their lives on the line every day for public safety, pour out all they have to educate our children, keep our cars moving, care for our vulnerable families, and run our public parks and libraries and more. They pay taxes, too. Some have spent their lives in public service and now are fearful of not being able to make ends meet in their elder years.

They deserve better.

Rick Wilson is director of the American Friends Service Committee West Virginia Economic Justice Project and a Gazette contributing columnist.