CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A barnstorming tour to listen to West Virginians who deal with the Public Employees Insurance Agency has concluded.
The final stop for the public outreach subcommittee of the PEIA Task Force was at the state Culture Center.
LIVE: Charleston – Public Outreach Listening Tour https://t.co/NQAZw4qa7H
— West Virginia PEIA Task Force (@WVPEIATaskForce) June 11, 2018
The public hearing Monday night in Charleston was the 22nd around the state. So the Task Force has had multiple opportunities to listen to public employees around West Virginia.
This stop also included a rally on the state Capitol steps, which included speeches by teachers union leaders as well as the recognition of political candidates who were in attendance, mostly Democrats.
Now comes the hard part — the decisions.
Two more subcommittees of the PEIA Task Force have been charged with shaping what the plan should really be like and how to pay for it.
They need to get their work done at least by November, which is both the timing of the general election and also when the separate PEIA finance board begins to shape each year’s plan.
“I deserve a great healthcare plan. I should not have to beg. And those on the Task Force trying to help us, good for you,” said Betsy Atwater of Fayette County, a teacher for 42 years. “The solution is at the voting booth.”
Gov. Jim Justice established the PEIA Task Force as an outcome of the statewide teachers’ strike during the most recent legislative session. Teachers walked out of schools for higher pay and with complaints that healthcare cost increases were dramatically outpacing their ability to pay.
Those involved have said all along that the total cost of PEIA goes up by $50 million year over year, meaning that some combination of savings and additional revenue would be needed to cover the annual cost increases.
People who spoke before the Task Force on Monday evening consistently advocated for higher severance taxes to stabilize PEIA, although taxes on energy can fluctuate dramatically.
“We are in a rich state. We need to tax that shale,” one speaker said to applause.
Speaker Olivia Morris said demand for West Virginia’s natural gas is out of whack with the current severance tax: “We’re charging Taco Bell prices for our Angus beef.”
There have been lots of other issues, too.
People at many of the Task Force stops around West Virginia advocated for more flexibility crossing the state border for healthcare. That issue was not a major theme during the stop in Charleston, near the center of the state.
Several of Monday evening’s speakers were retirees who advocated for cost-of-living increases. They said they had agreed during their careers to accept the rarity of raises in favor of good health insurance.
“I have faith in our state to take care of its own,” said Spud Terry, who represents retired public employees.
Carla Linville, a secretary for Cabell County Schools, comes from an extended family of school employees. She argued against basing people’s plans on total family income. She said that penalizes those who take on additional duties at their schools to try to make ends meet.
“I should not be penalized for working hard to provide for my family,” Linville said.