Years after strike, West Virginia public workers push back against another insurance cost increase

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The agency in charge of managing health insurance for more than 200,000 government workers in West Virginia is facing pushback over proposed premium increases, five years after public school employees went on strike over rising health care costs.

The state Public Employees Insurance Agency is proposing a premium hike that would amount to a 35% increase in two years for state employees. In a series of public hearings this week, workers said they can’t afford the increases, despite recent tax cuts and raises for state employees.

During a virtual hearing Thursday, teacher Casey Lockerbie said that even with a raise, she’s making less than she did last year because of this year’s increases.

“The whole reason we went on strike a few years ago was to fund PEIA, and I just don’t think this is the solution for it,” said Lockerbie, who travels into West Virginia from a neighboring state to work. “You want to attract people to come to the state and work for you, but you’re penalizing the people that are coming into the state and working.”

With the health insurance agency facing a $376 million deficit earlier this year, the GOP supermajority state Legislature passed a wide-ranging bill increasing state employee health insurance premiums by around 25% in July. There’s also a new surcharge of around $150 for spouses who forgo their employer’s insurance to opt into the state plan.

The law made it mandatory for the Public Employees Insurance Agency to enact an 80-20 cost split between the employer and employees.

Under the proposed plan, state employees’ premiums would increase an additional 10.5% next July. The agency‘s finance board is expected to take a final vote in December, after listening to feedback this month at public hearings across the state.

The second year of proposed increases comes after Republican Gov. Jim Justice promised in 2021 that premiums would not go up on his watch.

In 2018, West Virginia school employees went on strike for the first time in two years in large part over concerns about the Public Employees Insurance Agency‘s long-term solvency. Gov. Justice created a task force to study the issue as part of his agreement with labor unions. But it never resulted in any significant policy changes to stabilize the budget.

Justice says the increases are offset by raises – a $2,300 increase for state employees this year – and is proposing another 5% increase next year to offset the cost. He also signed a law this year cutting the state income tax by an average of 21.25% across brackets.

Opponents of the increase argue raises don’t go far enough. West Virginia teachers are among the lowest-paid in the nation.

During a hearing in Charleston earlier this week, school service personnel union leader Joe White said he knows members of the agency finance board have their hands tied because of the legislation passed earlier this year.

But White asked the board to remember that the people incurring the cost are “human, they’re families.”

“Organized labor, labor organizations, school employees – we’re not the devil, folks,” he said. “They’re employees that’s out there working for the state of West Virginia who should be treated with respect.”

Retired employees not yet eligible for Medicare and city and county employees insured by the agency would also see increases.

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Source: WT