Kerry Phillips drove into Baton Rouge from New Roads and arrived 45 minutes early. But she still couldn’t get into the first “informational meeting” that would lay out what she as a retired state employee could expect from the sweeping changes to the state health care plan by the Jindal administration.
“This is just crazy. This is insane, insane,” Phillips said. Neither of two rooms were big enough to handle the crowds as the Office of Group Benefits scrambled Monday to accommodate unexpectedly large numbers of state employee, teachers and retirees, all wanting to know what the changes would mean to them.
More than 1,500 Group Benefits members faced traffic jams, parking problems, long lines to get into a session. Sometimes they were told to “come back later,” after extra session times and meeting places on the State Police headquarters grounds were added.
“Well I tried. I really did,” Phillips said, adding that she already contacted her state legislator.
The state is overhauling its insurance programs that cover about 230,000 people who work for state government or teach or are their dependents. The Jindal administration says the changes will give members choices that could better fit individual wants and needs, while making the program more financially stable. Critics say the Group Benefits programs were once financially strong but were weakened by mismanagement.
Either way, the changes have attracted a lot attention and the Office of Group Benefits plans informational meetings throughout the state. Group Benefits members must enroll in a new plan by the end of November.
“It was pretty busy this morning. A lot of people are obviously engaged in their health care,” Susan West, chief executive officer of Group Benefits, said. The crowds continued into the afternoon.
“We did plan for an overflow,” she said. But people just kept coming and the extra meeting rooms overflowed. West was personally helping an elderly retiree try to determine her options.
West said Group Benefits officials didn’t expect the large crowd because of the number of active employees who have been on the website and who have participated in earlier Webinars. She said changes are being made to accommodate more people for two sessions planned Tuesday in the Claiborne Building in downtown Baton Rouge.
“They were totally unprepared for the reaction,” said Ann Costanza, a school teacher in Jefferson Parish. “It’s not a small change in our insurance. We are paying more for less coverage, you want to be informed as much as you can.”
She said she got her questions answered.
State employee Senta Holmes complained: “We had no idea they were going to change like this. For my family it will mean a $3,000 deductible.”
There will be a greater variety of health plan options. Premiums will remain the same but out-of-pocket expenses such as copays, deductibles, co-insurance and the like are going up - some substantially. The changes shift $192 million in Group Benefits costs to plan members and away from the state or school systems involved.
Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said the changes are necessary to prevent the insurance program from going broke because medical and pharmacy claims are outpacing revenues coming in. But critics blame mismanagement, in part, for the problem as the Jindal administration cut premiums by nearly 9 percent at the same time claims expenses were escalating. During the same time frame a $500 million-plus Group Benefits reserve fund has dwindled to just over $200 million. The state and public schools pay 75 percent of the premium costs and reductions in premiums freed up dollars that could be spent elsewhere in the state budget.
In a Press Club of Baton Rouge appearance Monday, State Treasurer John N. Kennedy said the current situation is fraught with problems because “one single individual” — the commissioner of administration — should not have the power to set insurance premiums and determine the kind of policies available. He said decisions need to be made “in the limelight ... in the spotlight, where decisions are transparent” and where discussions can be held.
Kennedy said he has heard from Group Benefits members who would rather see increases in their insurance premium and some changes in benefits rather than the route Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has chosen, which falls heaviest on them financially. “Let’s just start over,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy proposed that the law be changed to involve in the Group Benefits’ decision-making process a diverse committee which is already relied on to make actuarial decisions related to the state’s retirement systems - the Public Retirement Systems Actuarial Committee.
He also suggested that a Group Benefits advisory board be given some clout.
Nichols responded to calls for more oversight with prepared statement pointing out that the legislative money committees and the Legislative Auditor oversee the Office of Group Benefits and that rate changes, because state government as the employer pays a substantial portion of its employees’ premiums, must go through the budgeting process. “The planned benefit changes are not a result of a lack of oversight or unique to OGB (Office of Group Benefits). The average health insurance premium has risen by 196 percent since 1999. And, the cost of insuring OGB’s members has risen by 28 percent since just 2008. Changes are necessary for OGB to continue to operate.”