I have communicated with a number of teachers and services workers over the past ten days in person, on the phone, by email and text. Many have told me personal stories about their concerns over their health insurance.
A maintenance worker at a Kanawha County middle school did not complain about his $25,000 salary, but he’s worried about PEIA. His wife has health problems and takes a number of medications, and some of them are very expensive.
A teacher’s aid from Jackson County saw her monthly premium shoot up from just over $200 to more than $700 when PEIA planned a change to include total family income when determining premiums. That change has been rolled back under the freeze, but she is worried about what will happen when the freeze ends in 16 months.
A Hardy County middle school teacher emailed me about her ongoing issues with PEIA regarding treatment and tests necessary for her child who was born prematurely. “During her first year of life, we paid over $30,000 out of our own pockets in medical expenses,” she wrote.
And on the stories go.
West Virginia’s Public Employee Insurance Agency covers 220,000 active and retired workers. Each person has health care issues and concerns that are unique to them. That’s one of the reasons health care is such a complicated issue.
It’s also expensive. PEIA will pay out about $950 million in claims this fiscal year. The state is putting in another $30 million of taxpayer dollars next fiscal year just to keep PEIA premiums and out-of-pocket costs from rising.
Our teachers, service employees and state workers are right to be anxious about their health insurance. Who among us does not have some level of fear about getting sick and going bankrupt paying for complicated and confusing treatments? Why should they be any different?
We are fond of saying that public employees work for us because we pay their salary. That’s true, but it is also a two-way street. As their employers, we have an obligation to them to provide a safe, healthy workplace, and wages and benefits as are practicable.
West Virginia does not have collective bargaining for public employees, but it’s understood that there is a social contract between the state and its employees and retirees. The specifics of that social contract are public policy decisions.
At the same time, public policy makers also have to represent the taxpayers who are shouldering 80 percent of the cost of PEIA. These taxpayers have their own health insurance concerns.
Our attention over the last week and a half has focused on the vociferous demonstrations. The collective voices have chanted that they want a “fix not a freeze” for PEIA. But beneath the clamor are the individual voices with real life experiences and fears about health insurance for themselves and their families.
Governor Jim Justice has created a special task force to study PEIA and come up with some long-term solutions. Any potential solution begins with identifying the problem. A good place to start would be to hear some of these stories.