Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
For more information about Jo, check out her Linked-in profile, as well as her Facebook fan page, Instagram and Google+
Monday, September 3, 2012
Lawmakers: We'll push for health plan changes
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Three Bucks County state lawmakers say they'll drop their expensive taxpayer-subsidized health insurance plans, while others last week vowed to step up pressure for significant changes in Pennsylvania Legislature employee health plan costs and employee contribution levels.
Sens. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, and Tommy Tomlinson, R-6, and Rep. Katharine Watson, R-144, last week said they'll look into switching their indemnity plans to cheaper health coverage as soon as possible.
"I was unaware the costs were that high and I believe we need to take action to control them," Tomlinson said. "A large number of employee groups in the state are renegotiating their contracts this year, and I believe we have to lead by example by lowering our costs and increasing our contributions to our plans."
In the state House, as of Friday, 10 more representatives signed on as co-sponsors of bills that would raise employee contributions to 10 percent or 20 percent of the cost of the plan.
A bill proposed by Bucks County Republican Rep. Frank Farry, R-142, would require lawmakers to increase contributions to the cost of their health benefits gradually over 10 years until they reach 20 percent of the premium costs. Luzerne County Democrat Rep. Gerald Mullery has proposed raising those contributions to 10 percent starting in January.
The seven Bucks County Republican representatives issued a joint statement last week in support of Farry's bill, calling it "a good start."
"The more numbers we can get on either one of these bills the better,'' Mullery said. "I think now is the time. We may have a better chance in his session than others,"
As of Friday, Farry's bill had 25 co-sponsors; Mullery's bill had seven. The more co-sponsors - 50 to 70 is considered a good number - the more likely the House leadership will move a bill to the floor for a vote, Farry said.
The newly energized efforts among local lawmakers to change the Legislature's health benefits followed a three-part State of Health series in the Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer earlier this month. The series took an in-depth look at the health benefits of more than 2,800 House and Senate employees.
The series generated dozens of calls and emails from residents who are angry and frustrated over the failure of state lawmakers to address the high cost of and low participant contributions to health coverage for them and their staffs, at a time when the budget calls for deep cuts in education and other programs to fill a $4 billion budget hole.
House employees and retirees don't contribute to their health benefits, though they'll start giving 1 percent of their salary in July. Senate employees and retirees have contributed 1 percent of their salary since 2007.
With the 1 percent contribution, most lawmakers pay or will pay less than $800 a year for coverage that, this year, costs anywhere from $4,317 to $20,420 in the House and $7,045 to $31,237 in the Senate, depending on the type of plan and number of dependants.
In separate statements issued in the past week, 10 Bucks County representatives agreed that dramatic changes are needed.
Democrats Tina Davis, D-141, John Galloway, D-140, and Steven Santarsiero, D-31, said this week they'll present a letter to both political parties' leadership asking them to move the bills calling for higher employee contributions to the House floor for a vote "as soon as possible."
Change could come first in the Senate, where the Committee on Management Operations is negotiating its medical benefits contracts, which expire at the end of June.
Among the changes under consideration are eliminating indemnity plans, expensive coverage that is virtually nonexistent in the private sector, Tomlinson said. Also on the table are adjusting copays, plan designs and employee contribution rates, and consolidating the House and Senate plans.
Tomlinson met with Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who chairs the committee, and he reacted "positively" to dropping indemnity plans and raising employee contributions to "at least" 20 percent of the cost of the plans.
"There seems to be an indication to me there is movement," Tomlinson added. "I don't think any of us knew what the costs were. They were pretty shocking."
Tomlinson said he had thought the 1 percent employee contribution reflected 10 percent of the plan cost. He added that several months ago, he asked about increasing his contributions to 2 percent but was told it wasn't legally possible.
If the Senate committee doesn't implement changes, Tomlinson said he'll introduce legislation next session to raise employee contributions to at least 20 percent of the cost of the plans.
Meanwhile, only one of the four medical benefit contracts covering House employees expires at the end of June. (The plan, an HMO with 19 employees enrolled, costs the state $149,000 this year)
The remaining contracts run through July 2012, and the House Bipartisan Management Committee, which is responsible for employee benefits, has started the negotiation process.
The seven local Republican representatives said they've been assured by the Bipartisan Management Committee that all options will be considered, including decreased benefits, increased copays and higher contribution levels.
"Like any other company or organization, we will attempt to reduce our costs for benefits each and every year," the Republican lawmakers said in their joint statement.
The House hired an outside consultant a few years ago to review salaries and benefits, Rep. Scott Petri, R-178, said in an email. He did not respond to requests for details or a copy of the analysis.
Dramatic benefit changes in the Senate could influence House leadership to implement similar ones, Farry said.
"It definitely brings more awareness, if the Senate moved in that direction," he said. "The bipartisan committee is aware of the need for health care contributions. They moved us in the 1 percent (direction) now, so they are not ignorant to the issue."