CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice, leadership in the House of Delegates and the Republican Caucus agreed Tuesday to ask the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board to freeze its premium structure for the upcoming fiscal year amid concerns from public educators.
The board approved changes in December that critics say would have raised premiums. While public employees would receive a 1 percent pay raise under a proposal supported by Justice and passed by the Senate last week, many have argued the pay increase would not be enough to cover insurance costs.
Justice administration Chief of Staff Mike Hall announced the request during a town hall the governor held in Lewisburg.
“What your coverages are, whether you are currently employed or retired, will remain the same for the next fiscal year,” Hall said.
Justice took part in town halls Tuesday in Logan and Lewisburg. He spent much of his second event speaking about the accomplishments of his administration regarding education, including scrapping the A-F grading system and restoring authority to local boards of education.
“Do you honestly believe if we had had the board that we had in the past, we’d have this discussion and change? There was no chance on the planet,” he said. “But it’s changed, and its made your lives, in my opinion, a whole lot better.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he hopes the Finance Board will approve of the freeze, noting changes such as the use of total family income to determine premiums as something that should be reexamined.
“By delaying the move to this system, lawmakers, PEIA officials and enrollees will be able to offer more input and consider all options over the coming year to ensure a fair premium structure for PEIA,” he said in a statement. “In the meantime, we are also committed to passing a pay raise package for our teachers, corrections officers, State Police and state employees as a whole that will give them the best pay our resources will allow.”
The announcement comes four days after teachers from Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties flooded the upper rotunda of the state Capitol and voiced concerns with increasing health care costs. Protests and rallies were held throughout the weekend across the state.
One proposal that has been introduced regarding health insurance costs is House Bill 4341, which would set aside 33 percent of the state tax on natural gas and oil for an insurance program fund, as well as a third of the county and municipality share to that account.
Justice, using an offensive term, said there was minimum 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. “It’s not going to even get out of committee. Go ahead and see. It won’t even get to first blooming base.”
An announcement regarding the town halls was sent minutes before the Logan event took place at 11:30 a.m. Justice canceled a scheduled press conference last Friday on the matter.