Georgia Voices: The state benefits system: Misery hates company
by The Savannah Morning News
January 23, 2014 08:59 PM | 1308 views | 0 0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Here are three words for Georgia’s 650,000 state employees who are upset by changes to their health care plan this year: Join the crowd.

An increasing number of Americans are suffering from sticker shock or high anxiety over their medical care and insurance plans. That number is expected to grow next year, when companies with more than 50 employees lose their one-year reprieve and must abide by the Obamacare mandates.

But the controversy that’s been boiling among Georgia’s state employees since Jan. 1 has nothing to do with Obamacare — and everything to do about decisions made at the executive level last year by Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration.

It’s complicated, as most things are when it comes to health care. However, it’s not rocket science. The basic premise is easy to grasp: The state’s $3 billion health benefits plan had been losing money; so those in charge made a conscious decision to shift a greater financial burden onto the shoulders of state employees to save an estimated $200 million.

First, nowhere is it written that public employees are entitled to the best benefits that taxpayers can buy. That reckless attitude has gotten states like Illinois and cities like Detroit in deep financial trouble.

At the same time, it’s important to communicate and debate changes. On those points, Georgia was negligent.

Last year’s 5-3 decision by the state Department of Community Health board — a group appointed by the governor — to make major health-care changes in the benefits plan was barely noticed at the time. Indeed, Community Health Commissioner Clyde Reese sang its praises, saying the new plan will allow employees to have reduced premiums.

But what wasn’t effectively communicated — or, perhaps understood or appreciated by the governor’s appointed DHC board — was that these lower premiums came at a price:

Namely, the loss of copays for those covered.

Instead of paying a modest $25 fee or other token amount for doctor’s office visits, lab tests or other services, employees would have to pay the full amount beginning in 2014. Only when they reached their deductible limits would out-of-pocket costs go down.

If an employee is healthy, the new plan administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield is a net bargain. But if an employee is like Melissa McCoy, a 34-year-old teacher for the Savannah-Chatham County public school who has a life-threatening malady that requires expensive tests and drugs, it’s a bust.

“It is sad when having another heart attack or going out on disability at 34 would be a better financial option for my family than paying nearly $300 a month in premiums for the privilege of not being able to afford to see my cardiologist,” she wrote in a Jan. 14 guest column that appeared in the Savannah Morning News.

Mr. Deal’s board had a responsibility to shore up a money-losing system. It did a woeful job, however, in making lower premiums its top concern, in failing to look at how coverage would play out and in explaining changes to employees.

Obamacare is triggering misery that doesn’t need company. If it’s not too late, Gov. Deal should hit the reset button on some items in the state plan.

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