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Opinion: W.VA. House of Delegates Report week ending Feb. 2

By Jared Hunt

WV House of Delegates Communications Director

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates finished its fourth week of the 2018 regular session with much of the attention focused on how to best structure pay increases and health insurance for teachers and state employees.

As the state Senate this week debated Gov. Jim Justice’s pay-raise plan for state employees (Senate Bill 267<>), members of the House were working with Public Employees Insurance Agency Director Ted Cheatham and other administration officials to discuss proposed changes to employee health insurance plans.

“We have heard loudly and clearly from our teachers and state employees that they are worried about the effects of these proposed PEIA changes, and have been actively exploring ways to offset costs,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

The talks have already produced some results.

One particular area of concern was the implementation of a mandatory wellness program called Go365, which would establish and track certain health and wellness goals for employees.

Lawmakers worried the mandatory program would unfairly punish people who couldn’t afford some of the technology, like Fitbits, needed to participate in the program, and felt the way it tracked employee fitness goals was an invasion of privacy.

Following meetings with legislative leaders on Monday, it was announced the Go365 program would be converted to a voluntary incentive program, meaning employees who chose not to participate would not be penalized for that decision.

House Republicans have also shared with PEIA Director Cheatham other concerns they have been hearing from constituents about the agency’s proposed changes to the insurance program and its premium structure.

In addition to the Go365 plan, many concerns centered around the agency’s decision to change how it determines premium rates for enrollees.

Unlike most private-sector insurance programs, PEIA structures its premium rates around an employee’s ability to pay. For years, PEIA had used an employee’s individual income to define their ability to pay. However, this year the PEIA Finance Board decided to move from individual income to total family income as their criteria for ability to pay as a matter of fairness.

Under the existing premium system, a state employee who makes $30,000 a year but is married to someone working in the private sector who makes $400,000 still pays the same in family insurance costs as a teacher making $30,000 a year but whose spouse only makes $24,000.

The switch to the total family income plan was designed to ensure the wealthier family picked up a greater share of costs, while actually reducing costs for the family earning less.

According to Director Cheatham, approximately 45 percent of PEIA enrollees would see premiums and out-of-pocket expenses decrease under the new plan structure, while the remaining participants would see increases that varied based on their family income level.

Some lawmakers felt the switch to the total family income might have unintended consequences for families where both spouses are state employees. They feared two spouses who both make modest state salaries might be forced to pay a greater share of additional costs under a scale that was designed to account for spouses who make higher incomes in the private sector.

As those concerns became known, Gov. Justice announced Thursday he’s directed the PEIA Finance Board to begin planning public hearings on reforms that would reduce PEIA premiums for families that have dual state incomes, including teachers.

“I’m glad the PEIA Finance Board is going to reconsider this system,” Speaker Armstead said. “The effect of this change to total family income and the potential unintended consequences for families that have both spouses working for the state was deeply concerning to our members and their constituents. We look forward to working with the PEIA Director and Finance Board to craft a system that avoids unfairly penalizing our teachers and state employees.”

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates will begin working on the pay-raise proposal for teachers and state employees. House leadership is exploring possible ways to improve the Governor’s introduced plan in order to ensure an equitable pay and benefits package for teachers and state employees.

“Our state budget picture is improving, but remains tight,” Speaker Armstead said. “We are currently evaluating a broad range of options to give our teachers, state employees and school service personnel pay and benefit improvements that give them the best bang for the buck within the limited resources we have in our state budget.”

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