The group TRAGIC, or Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices, played host to the rally to voice their disapproval of this year’s State Health Benefit Plan and call on the governor to provide better options in upcoming years.
Canton resident Ashley Cline, the wife of a Cherokee County teacher and creator of TRAGIC, said she saw a more than 500 percent increase in the cost of health services for her young daughter, who is covered under Georgia’s benefit plan.
“We have been forced to weigh the health and well-being of our children against our pocketbook,” Cline said to the group of supporters. “Today, we come together to send a clear message to those in power who have made poor decisions for State Health Benefit Plan members and their families — decisions that have left members angry, confused and financially strapped.”
Georgians from across the state were at the rally to represent thousands of others who couldn’t attend, Cline said. Teachers and retirees from Cherokee and Cobb to Bryan and Upson counties made the trek to the Capitol to be heard by state officials.
Just six weeks after the group was created by Cline in January, it has amassed more than 14,000 members who all want the same thing — Cline said — choices.
“We need affordable health care choices during open enrollment each and every year,” Cline said to applause and cheers. “Our labor has not been in vain as the governor and the Department of Community Health Board stepped in on Jan. 27 to address one of our many concerns this year; however, the temporary fix of reinstating co-pays for some medical services and prescriptions equates to a Band-Aid on an ax wound.”
The 2014 State Health Benefit Plan, impacting more than 650,000 state employees and their dependents, offered the option of three tiers of a HRA plan through the third-party administrator Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia.
In contrast, 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.
The TRAGIC group was created Jan. 2, one day after the new State Health Benefit Plan took effect, and many state employees have used the group to voice their concern and issues they’ve faced with the new plan.
The 2014 plan options were presented to a nine-member board, appointed by the Gov. Nathan Deal, who approved the three-tier Health Reimbursement Arrangement, or HRA, plan options in August 2013.
“In the name of saving money for taxpayers, the Department of Community Health Board, appointed by the governor, funneled all 650,000 members onto one plan type with one plan administrator this year, effectively eliminating all of our health care choices,” Cline said at the rally. “We are witnessing what happens when the government and its agencies operate on a shoestring budget — they trip over the laces. And, in our case, we are the ones taking the fall.”
Jennifer Hall, a Cherokee County teacher and single parent whose son is covered by her State Health Benefit Plan, told her story on the steps of the Capitol.
Hall’s son undergoes tests every few years to screen for the undetected heart ailment that killed his father in 2002, Hall said.
“Every few years, I hold my breath as my son undergoes his echocardiogram and EKG, praying that we once again hear, ‘All clear, see you in a few years.’ All through this, I’ve been able to focus on my son’s well-being, and didn’t have to worry about my out-of-pocket costs. Our insurance plan has always made that manageable,” Hall explained. “This summer it will be time for Scott to see his cardiologist again, and I’m scared, and I’m alone.”
Hall said many of her questions have yet to be answered after multiple attempts to get accurate information.
“Will Blue Cross Blue Shield deny him this visit? Will I have numerous hoops to jump through to get my son the care he needs? Will I have to fight tooth and nail for him?” Hall said. “And, after all that, what if this time, I hold my breath and don’t get good news? I’ll now have two things to worry about — fighting for my son’s life, and fighting for our financial life.”
Hall said the governor and the Department of Community Health’s priorities need to change.
“Their health care choices shouldn’t add up to yet another consequence of choosing a career in public service,” Hall said. “Gov. Deal, I call upon you to do the right thing by the 650,000 state employees. The money that we pay, that our employers contribute should go toward choice in providers, choice in plans, and peace of mind for our families’ health care so that we can continue to serve the citizens of Georgia.”
Kimberly Snyder is pregnant with her first child and has been a teacher with Cobb County for a decade. When she first visited the doctor in 2013, Snyder said her appointment cost $35 and all other visits last year didn’t cost her anything.
“We got the shock of our lives when we went to our January OB doctor’s visit. The lady who deals with insurance claims said, ‘This is very bad compared to what you had last year.’ She said to expect to pay between $300 to $400 a month for my visits. That is just for the regular doctor visits leading up to the delivery. Any extra visits because of complications would be extra. The monthly cost does not include the delivery and the thousands of dollars it will cost through the hospital,” Snyder said.
Snyder, now five months pregnant, said her family’s miracle had turned into a financial nightmare after the 2014 SHBP took effect in January.
“How are we going to afford all this additional money a month on top of our already higher premium with less pay? I asked my husband why we were being punished for having jobs, getting up and going to work every day, paying taxes, and paying for health insurance each month,” Snyder said. “At this point it would be cheaper for me to quit my job, get on Medicaid and have the government and taxpayers pay for our baby. How is this right?”
Snyder said she’s still excited about her first child, but she wants answers and she wants change.
“I, along with every other state employee, work way too hard to be treated like this and we want answers, and we are not going anywhere until we get them,” she said as the crowd applauded her speech. “We are no longer afraid to speak up for our rights. If we don’t, then who will? State employees and retirees, we are all in this together, and we can make a difference.”
Another speaker, retired teacher Beth Odom, said she and her husband have given nearly 65 years of service to Georgia public schools.
“My much-needed knee replacement surgery has been postponed,” Odom said. “As sad as it is, it does not compare to what many of my colleagues and fellow TRAGIC members have experienced.”
Jamie Wills said her family was struggling with finding a new pediatrician, after the new insurance plan meant they had to leave the doctor that her daughters had been seeing since they were born.
“The governor has worked with the board at the Department of Community Health to bring back our co-pays. But what exactly does that mean?” Wills said. “You call the department of state health and ask a few questions —but they have no answers. You call Blue Cross Blue Shield, and depending on who you talk to, you can get a different answer to the same question every hour on the hour. My, our, stress levels have gone through the roof wondering if we will survive the State Health Benefit Plan of 2014.”
Nate Cline, Cherokee County teacher and the group creator’s husband, shared the story of one of TRAGIC’s leaders who found himself in the hospital after avoiding a trip to the doctor over a case of “the sniffles.”
Cline read the story written by Robby Richardson, who could not be at the rally.
“Our new health insurance plan quite literally almost killed me last week. I am mad that my fear of using the new HRA plan almost cost me my life,” the story began. “I wanted to go to the doctor. I thought about going many times. Last year, this would not have been an issue. Unfortunately, I was afraid to go because I had just wiped out my entire HRA account to pay for monthly prescriptions for kidney disease. I endured by popping Tylenol and constant visits to our schools nurse.”
Richardson, a teacher in Savannah, blacked out in the middle of class last week and was rushed to the emergency room, Cline read from the teacher’s story.
“My heart rate skyrocketed up to 278 beats per minute. After several medications that my body responded to negatively, the attending physician hit me with 400 volts through a defibrillator. I was awake through the entire experience,” the story read. “Though I am grateful to be alive, I am still very angry. I am angry because I work hard to earn my salary and benefits as a teacher. My insurance has always been a source to help me — not hinder me. I should not be afraid to see my doctor because I can’t afford what happens next. The cost was almost my life.”
Finally, John Palmer, a Cobb County teacher, called on Deal and state officials to offer more options to state employees who had already seen problems with the insurance plan in the two months since it became effective.
“The governor and the DCH board have left us with few choices, all to save a few bucks by passing the cost on to us,” Palmer said. “You do have one choice, however, one that no one can take from you. You have a choice in your vote. You have a choice in who represents you, from your school board to your legislators, to your governor.”