CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Teachers, service personnel and union leaders voiced displeasure to the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board at a public hearing Monday about the proposal to halt next year’s insurance plans from taking effect.

More than 300 people attended the first of three public hearings the board will hold this week in regards to freezing last year’s insurance plan, stopping premiums from rising when the next fiscal year begins in July.

A majority of individuals who spoke at the University of Charleston criticized the board for failing to act in previous years to keep premiums down, rather than passing off costs to insurance holders.

“I don’t know what I really have left to say,” said Fred Albert, president of Kanawha Federation of Teachers. “Fix it, don’t freeze it. A freeze is not going to help us.”

The board will vote on Feb. 20 whether to hold insurance rates beginning July 1 at its current rates. Gov. Jim Justice provided the board with $29 million in revenue to cover related costs.

The Finance Board approved its plan in December after holding public hearings on the matter at the end of November. The new plan would consolidate the 10 income brackets to five and also use total family income as a determining factor regarding premiums.

Carrena Rouse, president of AFT-Boone County, said at a November hearing those changes would hurt low-income families, especially teachers because of their salaries. She urged the board Monday to stand up for education employees and push the Legislature to act in lowering health care costs.

“I will walk with you, I will fight with you, I will lock my arms and do whatever you need me to do,” she said. “Whatever you need. To sit here and look at me does not help it.”

PEIA Director Ted Cheatham said factors such as medical inflation and health care purchases affect how much premiums have to increase on a yearly basis.

“Every year, we need an additional $50 million, $60 million, $70 million dollars to keep the plan as it is,” he said. “We do have to comply with most federal regulations. If they save money or cost money, we have to comply.”

Cheatham said the board originally designed a plan around the budget they were presented by the governor’s office.

“Had we gotten this $29 million last year, we might have gone out with no change then,” he said. “Next year, I don’t know yet what we’ll need.”

Cheatham said the state should explore a revenue stream to fund the insurance program, though did not say what that source could be.

Joe White, executive director of West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said board members should support a severance tax bill would increase the natural gas tax by 2.5 percent. White added funding for PEIA would increase between $50 million and $62 million in the first year.

“I don’t mean to cause any trouble here and I know y’all have your job, but we warned you a couple years ago yellow fever is coming,” he said. “Yellow fever is the inability to see yellow school buses go up and down the road.”

A bill to dedicate severance taxes to PEIA — House Bill 4341 — was filed Jan. 29. Justice said at a Feb. 6 town hall there was little chance the bill would become law.

“Anything can happen, but I’m telling you there’s not a Chinaman’s chance in the whole wide world that that’s going to happen,” he said to an audience in Lewisburg.

The Finance Board will hold a second hearing Tuesday in Morgantown at the West Virginia University Erickson Alumni Center, and hold a final meeting Wednesday in Beckley at the Tamarack Conference Center. Each hearing will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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