Second day of 17-month PEIA freeze hearing draws hundreds of public workers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Seventeen months hasn’t assuaged the fear of educators and other school personnel who packed the Erickson Alumni Center Tuesday night for the second of three PEIA Finance Board public hearings.

That’s how long PEIA recipients will have until a freeze on previously proposed changes to their benefits comes to an end. The changes have the potential to lead to rising insurance premiums, deductibles, and changes to healthcare features that many say violates privacy.

“PEIA needs 50 to 60 to 70 million dollars for the next plan year after the freeze,” PEIA Finance Board Director Ted Cheatham said Tuesday night.

Public workers up and down the state have echoed that for weeks since large-scale unrest began, according to Monongalia County American Federation of Teachers President Sam Brunett.

“Teachers and public employees are here to voice their concerns about how their benefits have been eroding over the last five to ten years,” said Brunett, also an art teacher at Morgantown High School. “The other thing that has to be pointed out very harshly is the fact that the Governor didn’t write into the budget to fund our PEIA benefits.”

Brunett said teachers and school personnel want the Legislature and the Governor to commit to a funding source that consistently meets the funding hole created by annual medical inflation costs — transferring the cost “off the backs of public workers.”

He also suggested returning union representation to the PEIA Finance Board, criticizing a decision to remove two members last year.

“At least two people put back on this Board that represents labor, teacher, and their best interests,” Brunett said.

That topic was quite popular at Tuesday’s hearing, with a number of speakers echoing Brunett’s thoughts.

“The last session, they removed those two seats. Because they removed those two seats, now we’re seeing things like Go365, less funding, you saw the ten tiers at the beginning of when this rolled out. That would have never happened if we had that voice of labor and that voice of public employees back on that PEIA Board.”

Cheatham spoke for approximately five minutes before the public hearing began. He announced the TeleHealth co-pay would be reduced from $40 to $30; the much maligned Go365 would become optional; that he had heard school personnel who criticized the now frozen Total Family Income plan; and discussed ways to eliminate a $500 deductible.

“We could almost take last year’s plan and slap a new date on it, save for a few things,” Cheatham said.

Due to the simplicity of Cheatham’s message, much of Tuesday’s hearing had to do with the overall state of PEIA — rather than the specifics of a 17-month freeze.

“This benefit has been shouldered on our back so that now it is a liability,” said Raphael Snell, a Harrison County educator.

“How in the world can a public entity like the state that has all these employees offer a benefit that they don’t even fund? How does that happen? I mean I am really confused by this whole plan.”

The meeting Tuesday night was the second in as many nights, with a hearing previously held Monday in Charleston. The third public hearing is Wednesday in Beckley.

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