CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An annual letter sent by the governor to the Public Employees Insurance Agency doesn’t include the extra $100 million promised by Gov. Jim Justice, but his staff says not to worry.
“Governor Justice has proposed the additional $100 million appropriation for PEIA but it must be approved by the Legislature,” stated Mike Hall, chief of staff for the Governor’s Office.
“Additionally, the intent is that this money will be used to create a PEIA stability fund separate from general funding.”
Early this month, the governor gathered Republican lawmakers in his conference room to tout a pledge of an additional $100 million for PEIA.
“We are announcing that we’re going to dedicate $100 million today, $100 million toward a long-term solution of fixing PEIA and stabilizing it in the future,” Justice said during the announcement.
State law requires the governor to submit a letter to PEIA about this time every year, providing an estimate of general revenue and special revenue funds that will be available.
The letter from the governor dated Oct. 15 estimates that amount will be $575 million.
“This represents the same amount of State funds estimated to have been available for Fiscal Year 2019,” the governor wrote in the letter.
That is in the ballpark of the amount proposed in last year’s letter. That amount was $564,700.
The only way the $100 million the governor promised wouldn’t be available would be in an economic calamity, said Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.
“The only concern I would have is let’s say the stock market collapses and unemployment goes to 10 percent and West Virginia takes another nosedive on the rollercoaster we have of a budget process,” Blair said.
“We’ve had such strong months, and they keep getting better. PEIA for this year and next year has been operating in the black. They’re making changes and still needing more. I’m not too concerned about the commitment of that hundred million dollars.”
Senator Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, a member of the PEIA Task Force, suggested the letter from the governor should have mentioned the promised money as a matter of reassurance. But he said it’s more important to be in the budget.
“It does seem odd to me that if you pledge money towards this,” Plymale said, “but it’s more important that it’s reflected in the budget that he’ll propose in January.”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said the important step will be watching for the Legislature to approve the money.
“That’s all we can do at this point,” Lee said. “It is a promise.”
As state leaders have described it, the $100 million would be placed in a stabilization fund. Such a fund would offset increases in PEIA deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.
“If it is indeed into that type of account then it’s not one that would require the premium adjustment from the employee,” Lee said. “It depends on how the Legislature approves it.”
About this time each year, the PEIA Finance Board starts discussing plans for the coming fiscal year. A meeting that was scheduled originally for today was bumped to next month.
The PEIA Task Force that Governor Justice established also has gone for a long time without gathering. The most recent meeting was the coverage and plan subcommittee on August 24.
That subcommittee has now announced plans to meet Oct. 29, though.
Even with the governor’s promise of additional money, Lee said more work needs to be done. For example, he said, public employees on West Virginia’s border counties have been outspoken about greater flexibility.
“What we heard across the state was changes that we see need to be made in the plan,” Lee said. “We heard that loudly and clearly.”
The WVEA sent a letter last week to Governor Justice, expressing concern about lack of recent progress by the PEIA Task Force — particularly the coverage and plan and cost and revenue subcommittees.
“The fact that these subcommittees have canceled more meetings than they have held is completely unacceptable,” Lee wrote.
That’s an area where Lee agrees with Finance Committee Chairman Blair, who also wrote a letter expressing concern about task force progress.
Blair’s letter makes reference to a canceled Sept. 18 meeting.
“I am concerned that with cancellation of this meeting, we are losing valuable time in working towards a solution,” Blair wrote in a letter dated Sept. 27.
“The members of this Task Force, as well as the West Virginia educators, school service personnel, and public employees have invested a great deal of time and effort contributing to the process of finding a viable resolution to this issue.”
On Thursday, Blair said he never did receive a response to the letter.
“It looks like we’re back in motion again,” he said. “I never received a response on why we’re stopped, which is disturbing because there are many things we need to be looking at.”
Blair would like assurances that PEIA is not only adequately funded but that it functions effectively.
“We’re paying for a premium healthcare package for our state employees. There are times, I believe, that we’re not getting that,” he said. “If we’re spending money out, I want to be sure we’re getting the results we expect.”