By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Weary of seeing their health insurance benefits cut a little more each year, teachers, public employees and retirees turned out in Charleston Wednesday evening to tell the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board that “enough is enough.”
“It’s time that we as public employees, as educators in West Virginia, unite and say, we’re not going to take this anymore,” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said at the last of five public hearings on the latest proposed cuts in PEIA coverage.
“It makes sense to me that if you’re in a higher [salary] tier, you should pay more than some of our beginning teachers, who aren’t here tonight because they’re probably working a second job,” said Fred Albert, president of the Kanawha County branch of the American Federation of Teachers.
Several speakers cited low pay, coupled with annual cuts in what had been comparatively good benefits, as the reason why there are hundreds of unfilled teaching positions in public schools, and hundreds of job vacancies across state government, including Corrections and regional jails. Many blamed the Legislature for perennially underfunding salaries and benefits.
“Our Legislature wants to punish us yet again by raising our premiums, copayments and deductibles,” said Amy Neal, adding, “You’ve woke a sleeping giant and that giant is mad.”
“We need to tell our legislators we have had enough. We’re frustrated and we’re angry,” said Linda Thompson with the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
The crowd at the University of Charleston, though smaller than usual, was impassioned as ever.
As proposed by the PEIA Finance Board, the 2018-19 benefits plan proposes a small premium hike — 0.05 percent for current state and public school employees, and 2 percent for retirees — but sets up some employees for much larger hikes.
A key change would shift family coverage from a flat premium to a “pay by person” structure, with additional charges for spouses and dependent children.
For example, the current monthly premium for standard family coverage for an employee making $35,000 is $281.
If that employee has a spouse and three children, under the proposal, the new premium would be at least $363 a month, and could be as high as $446 a month, if the spouse has a higher income.
Because premiums are on a sliding scale based on income, PEIA executive director Ted Cheatham has long advocated using family income to determine premiums, suggesting that PEIA subsidizes many high-paid private sector professionals who are on their spouse’s PEIA plans.
Under the proposal, insurees will not be required to disclose their spouse’s income — but will be placed in the highest premium tier unless they provide that information.
“I’m telling you I agree, it is not my business what your spouse makes,” Cheatham told the gathering.
The plan also would be costlier for people who have preferred brand prescriptions, changing copays from a flat $25 to $30 for a 30-day prescription to 30 percent of cost, capped at $100 per 30-day prescription.
Wednesday’s public hearing was the last of four hearings around the state, along with a statewide public hearing via teleconference held on Monday.
Finance Board members will meet Dec. 7 for a final approval vote on the 2018-19 plan, which barring any revisions by the Legislature during the 2018 regular session, will go into effect for active employees on July 1, 2018.
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