After hearing from hundreds of members of a group started by a Canton woman to fight changes to the state’s health insurance plan, Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday he would back improvement to the plan that impacts more than 650,000 state employees.
Ashley Cline, wife of a Cherokee teacher, created the Facebook group TRAGIC, or Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes in January, and the group now has more than 11,500 members.
Cline said TRAGIC does not see Deal’s announcement as a victory, because not everyone is positively impacted by the change.
“They basically tacked on a co-pay option to the HRA plan we had, so instead of paying, let’s say $300, they restored the co-pay so it’d be $45,” Cline said. “That sounds great, and for everyone that had an HMO last year the feedback is very positive.”
Cline said that a lot of state employees and teachers don’t want an HMO, because they hit their deductibles early in the year and they’d rather pay that co-insurance because it’s cheaper than the co-pay.
“So we had a lot of people that are going to be negatively affected by this. A lot of people will save money, but again, we’re all being stuck with the same thing,” she said.
Deal, who is up for re-election this year, said that he supported the Department of Community Health board’s decision to lower out-of-pocket costs for state employees by making changes to the State Health Benefits Plan.
“We heard our state employees and teachers and we listened,” Deal said Monday in a news release. “I appreciate the board and the commissioner’s willingness to work with me on a timely solution. I shared the concerns of state employees and teachers about the high costs they were having to pay out of pocket.”
Cline said the fact that it’s an election year has her nervous about what may happen in years to come.
“I’m thrilled we were heard, but I’m worried about our family next year. I don’t want an 11-month Band-Aid, and then for this to happen all over again,” Cline said. “We’re not going anywhere, we’re not dissolving the page.”
The group is not going anywhere, she said, and leaders are looking to fight for better options in the upcoming year.
“Honestly, I think 2014 was a big flop,” Cline said. “I’m glad we were heard, and it’s good for some, but it’s bad for others. We’re going to press forward and make sure this doesn’t happen again when they’re making these decisions over the summer for us, we need a seat at the table. They need to speak to teachers and state employees with health conditions.”
Cline said it was encouraging to hear about the improvement, but said it doesn’t address all of the plan’s shortcomings.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Cline said. “Changing in the middle of the year is good for some, but we’ve already been hearing from some folks that wanted to keep their HRA. Making such a huge overhaul in the middle of the year is going to help some, but it’s also going to hurt some.”
Cline said as long as there is only one health care provider there is still a problem.
“This really ties back into the important notion that we’ve got to have option during open enrollment,” Cline said. “It’s got to be something where we’ve got control of our health care options and we’ve got the information in front of us during open enrollment.”
The 2013 plan offered state employees a choice of two different third-party administrators that offered the same set of plan options, which included: a High Deductible Health Plan, a Health Maintenance Organization option and a Health Reimbursement Arrangement.
Lisa Marie Shekell, communications director for the Georgia Department of Community Health, said the 2014 plan options were presented to a nine-member board, appointed by the governor, who approved the three-tier Health Reimbursement Arrangement, or HRA, plan options last August.
The Department of Community Health board decision that took effect Jan. 1 was estimated to save the state $200 million in 2014, Shekell said.
Sue McDonald, a Canton resident and retired teacher of 30 years, said the governor shouldn’t be in charge of appointing those who are charged with making decisions about state employee health care.
“The news yesterday was good, but we’re not finished,” she said. “That Department of Community Health Board does not need to be appointed by the governor.”
McDonald said she would like to see lay people on the board who are affected, like teachers, school staff, bus drivers and others state employees.
“Barge, who’s running for governor, already said there needs to be lay people on the board,” she said.
Deal said the decision to change the health plan last year was a tough one.
“The DCH board faced very tough decisions last year as it sought cost savings in light of large new costs brought on by the federal health care law,” Deal said in his release. “These are the same pressures affecting private sector employers across the country, many of whom are tightening eligibility or dropping coverage altogether.”
But McDonald said the federal health care act is no excuse for Deal “balancing the budget” with state health care funds.
“This has nothing to do with Obamacare. The people in the state university system had four choices, but the people down in the trenches, so to speak, had one choice,” she said. “We voted Roy Barnes out because of the way he treated teachers, and we can vote Nathan Deal out based on the way he’s treated us.”
McDonald said she knew the plan was bad “from the very start.”
“I’ve just retired with over 30 years of experience, and I’ve never had just one choice in all my years of teaching, I’ve always had two, three, four choices. I’ve known from the very beginning this is rigged,” McDonald said. “I think it’s pretty insane to treat more than 650,000 people this way.”
McDonald said she retired last year, and had hip surgery in December.
“My physical therapy visits went from $25 to over $100 per visit in the new year,” she said. “Now, with the situation having changed to go back to a co-pay system is going to be a lot better for the masses.”
The cost of adding co-pays into the 2014 plan is being absorbed by the State Health Benefit Plan reserves, a governor’s office spokespeople said Monday. The governor’s office estimated a total cost of about $116 million for 12 months.