State employees decry PEIA benefit cuts in Wheeling

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State employees decry PEIA benefit cuts in Wheeling
By Linda Comins, Staff Writer, The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING - A West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board public hearing Monday night drew a large crowd opposed to higher insurance costs for active and retired state workers.

Twenty-one people, out of an audience of about 200, spoke against proposed increases, calling the new rates unaffordable. Many speakers also criticized Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the legislature for failing to fund PEIA programs.

Six legislators - Democratic Sen. Jeff Kessler, Democratic delegates Michael Ferro, Shawn Fluharty and Dave Pethtel and Republican delegates Erikka Storch and Ryan Weld - spoke and endorsed additional funding for public employees' insurance coverage. PEIA officials have said that without additional funding from the legislature, they will have to increase premiums, deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket spending caps to close a $120 million shortfall for the 2017 plan year.

The session, held at West Virginia Northern Community College, was the third of the agency's six public hearings being held this month.

Joshua Gary, a Marshall County teacher, said the proposed benefit cuts are "unacceptable because many will no longer afford to work in our state." He said, "You must tell the legislature: 'If you value education, you must invest in it.'"

Bob Triveri, a retired teacher from Ohio County, said the proposals mean significant benefit cuts for retirees. He told the finance board, "You better come up with some other way to make up the financial gap."

Jerry Ames, an Ohio County Schools employee and president of the school service employees group, said, "Our people cannot afford anything more. They are at their wits' ends. We don't make enough money."

Andrea Keller, who works at Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, accused the state of "balancing the budget on the backs of your dedicated and hard-working employees."

Veterans' affairs worker Michael Craig suggested the state budget crisis be resolved by raising the severance tax on oil and gas production.

"The state has been fiscally irresponsible, and it's time to change. ... The PEIA board needs to go back to Gov. Tomblin and demand that changes be made," said Marshall County teacher Kathleen Loughman, who said the proposals would be devastating for her family.

Ferro, a retired teacher, said, "This measure is drastic and a draconian measure that will hurt all active employees and retirees."

Jessica Brammer, a Marshall County teacher and cancer survivor, said she must take name-brand drugs and "will be further punished" if prescription coverage is changed.

"This is a slap-in-the-face pay cut to employees who are woefully underpaid," said West Virginia Education Association representative Elliott Kendle. "This is, without a doubt, a proposal to decrease employees' pay. This is a new low."

Brian Beckett, an Ohio County bus driver, said, "We cannot afford these cuts ... What you're doing to us as hard-working, tax-paying individuals is not right."

Ralph Smith, a worker from Brooke County, said, "The solution lies with the legislature ... If we don't march on the Capitol and make our feelings known, then shame on us. If they don't understand our march, then maybe it's time to walk out."

Under PEIA's plan, active state employees would see the yearly deductible increase by $500 for single coverage and $1,000 for family coverage.

Out-of-pocket maximum costs would increase by $1,500 for single plans and $3,000 for family plans.

Retirees covered under PEIA would see 8-percent premium increases in addition to higher deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.

Changes also are proposed in prescription plans for both active employees and retirees.