By: Phil Kabler, Charleston Gazette-Mail
Members of the Public Employees Insurance Agency Task Force are expected to finalize their recommendations to the Legislature early next week — without identifying a dedicated funding source to offset ongoing health care cost increases.
West Virginia teachers are following the task force’s progress closely, leaders of the state’s teachers unions said.
“Our members are watching this very carefully,” said Fred Albert, newly elected president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia. “It’s a promise made that we have to make sure is a promise kept.”
Created by executive order of Gov. Jim Justice at the height of the statewide teachers’ walkout in February, the 29-member Task Force was told to find ways to reduce costs and improve benefits and to resolve ongoing funding shortfalls for PEIA, which covers more than 200,000 West Virginians.
The panel was given a deadline of Dec. 11. More than nine months, 21 statewide public hearings, and 15 committee meetings later, task force members are expected to wrap up their work with a series of meetings on the afternoon of Dec. 10.
However, on Tuesday, Justice conceded that the Task Force will not resolve a key component of its work: to find a dedicated revenue source to help offset PEIA medical and pharmaceutical costs that are growing by about $50 million a year.
“Our government is going to have to find a way to dedicate additional resources to PEIA,” Justice said at a Tuesday press conference, where he raised concerns that options such as an increase in the state severance tax on natural gas could cause more harm than benefit to the state.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, a task force member, said Thursday he is disappointed the group did not come up with a recommended revenue source — a perhaps unsurprising outcome since the task force’s subcommittee on Cost and Revenue has not met since Aug. 23. It is scheduled to meet at least briefly on Monday.
“I applaud the governor for putting $100 million into it, but the role of the task force was to come up with a long-term solution, and you can’t do that without some new revenue source,” said Lee.
On Oct. 2, Justice announced he will commit $100 million of an expected 2018-19 state budget surplus for a one-time funding supplement for PEIA.
Lee hopes the governor will direct the task force to continue its work beyond the Dec. 11 deadline.
“I still have faith in the task force to fulfill the role we were assigned,” Lee said. “I would think what we would need to do is to continue on, at least through the legislative session.”
Lee said the group has some breathing room, after the PEIA Finance Board announced it will have enough extra revenue to avoid raising premiums for the 2019-20 plan year, which begins July 1, 2019. The Finance Board will hold five public hearings, one by teleconference, on the proposed new plan between Dec. 12 and 19, and is scheduled to vote on the 2019-20 plan on Dec. 20.
Whether or not the task force comes up with a funding recommendation, the issue ultimately rests with the Legislature, Albert said.
“Finding a new revenue source is totally up to the Legislature. That’s going to be their job,” he said.
Albert and Lee were both positive about PEIA benefits changes to be recommended by the task force. Those include eliminating financial penalties for border county insurees who go to nearby out-of-state providers for care, and creation of an appeals process for insurees to request lower copay rates for some brand-name prescription drugs.
“That’s huge, particularly with the prescription drugs,” Lee said.
“That’s a good start,” Albert said of the improved benefits. “Our concern is we want there to be a long-term fix, and that still remains to be seen.”