Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, September 3, 2012
Lawmakers urged to pay more for health insurance
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Freshman state Rep. Gerald Mullery said Pennsylvania lawmakers should contribute as much as he does toward their health care premiums, which is 10 times more than he has to.
Bucks County Republican sophomore Rep. Frank Farry would like to see fellow lawmakers kick in two times more than what Mullery wants, which is closer to the percentage that private employers require employees to pay.
But it remains to be seen if either will see the type of health benefits changes they've proposed, unless, as one suggested, people make their voices heard.
Mullery, D-Luzerne, and Farry, R-142, each have introduced legislation to significantly increase lawmaker contributions toward health benefits, including tying them to the cost of the plans.
The legislation isn't necessary to change the health plans or contribution levels. The five-member House Bipartisan Management Committee is responsible for making decisions about health benefits for House employees.
Earlier this year, the committee agreed to begin requiring House employees - who haven't contributed toward health premiums - to start paying 1 percent of their salary, which would ranges from $780 to $1,222 a year.
Lawmaker contributions start July 1, and other employees and retirees will be phased in before the end of the year. Senate employees have contributed 1 percent of their salary toward health premiums since 2007.
The annual cost of the House and Senate plans this year range from a low of $4,317 (individual)/$12,109 (family) to as much as $11,065 (individual)/$31,257 (family) for medical and prescription drug benefits alone. Employees also received taxpayer subsidized dental and vision care.
In the Senate, the nine-member Benefit Structure Committee on Management Operations is responsible for employee health benefits decisions. It's unknown if similar Senate legislation has been introduced to boost the employee contribution for premiums.
The bill that Farry introduced last session would raise lawmaker contributions to 20 percent of premiums over 10 years. The bill does not address raising contributions for other employees or retirees.
Farry, who has served in the House since 2008, is among a handful of lawmakers who contribute to the benefits premium now. He gives 1 percent of his salary, which works out to 11 percent of his individual plan premiums.
The gradual phase-in was Farry's attempt to draft a moderate bill that could generate support and pass the House, he said.
"As we can see what happened last session, with the limited support, and what's happening this session with the lack of cosponsors, at the end of the day, it has limited support in its present form,'' he said.
Farry's original bill had 20 cosponsors, roughly 10 percent of House members. They included three Bucks County representatives - Steven Santarsiero, D-31, Paul Clymer, R-145, and Marguerite Quinn, R-143 - and House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Pittsburgh, a Bipartisan Management Committee member.
The bill died in committee, and Farry has vowed to keep reintroducing it. So far, the latest version has 17 cosponsors, including Bucks County's Quinn, Scott Petri, R-178, and Katherine Watson, R-144, but not Turzai.
"It's unfortunate," Farry added. "Part of it could be I'm asking people to take money out of their own pocket."
Clymer believes support is there to pay more.
"I would say this, the members, I'm speaking for the Republican caucus, I would say, by and large, are not adverse to paying more in premiums and copays," Clymer said. "We have to give something, 1 percent, if they ask for more, I'd be glad to pay more."
Santarsiero, another who contributes 1 percent of his salary toward health benefits, said ultimately the Republican leadership controls what bills go to the floor for a vote.
"I'd hope Frank (Farry)'s bill is one they'd commit to running," he added. "The real question is, will there be a majority to pass the proposal, and I don't have a good feel for that right now."
Democrat Mullery said he has received "mixed" reaction to the bill he introduced in February that would require lawmakers to contribute 10 percent toward their plan premiums starting in January. His bill has only three cosponsors.
"I've taken some ridicule," said Mullery, a cosponsor on Farry's bill. "And I've also seen some semblances of support."
Mullery said that he voluntarily contributes 10 percent of the cost of his family health plan, something that his constituents regularly tell him they appreciate.
"The message I've been trying to deliver is that I certainly can't do it alone," he added. "If the people of the commonwealth aren't willing to send email or call their legislators, my bill won't get out of committee."