The budget issue that has most rattled the General Assembly this year involves the proposed elimination of health insurance for 11,500 part-time school employees, mainly bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
Gov. Nathan Deal, defending the insurance cut for these “non-certificate” school workers, argued that it’s a matter of fairness to other state employees who work part time but don’t qualify for benefits.
The Georgia House, feeling the heat from the public over the unpopular proposal, put the benefits for the non-certificate workers back into the budget. But the legislators shifted that cost – more than $100 million – to the local school districts. That sparked a new outcry.
And as the debate continues about who should pay these costs, a state document circulated by a Georgia blogger has raised eyebrows about what the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP) is saving under its current insurance setup.
The document was generated in 2013 by the Department of Community Health, which runs the SHBP. According to the document, the projected savings of the switch to a single health insurer was to be $1.8 billion over three years – for 2014, this year and next.
“Some folks seeing [the savings document] for the first time are starting to question it,’’ says John Palmer, a leader of the group Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Changes. The group, known by the acronym TRAGIC, helped push for changes in the state health plan last year.
“People want some answers,” Palmer says, adding that state leaders “keep saying the sky is falling with the budget.”
State officials point out that the State Health Benefit Plan leadership has changed since the creation of the 2013 document, which estimated savings under Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, the single insurer at that time.
A spokesman for Community Health said last week in an email that the SHBP saw about $98 million in savings during the first six months of 2014. “Most of the savings were achieved through more competitive network pricing,” said Jeremy Arieh, Community Health spokesman.
The SHBP covers more than 630,000 state employees, teachers, other school personnel, retirees and dependents.
When the single-insurer plan went into effect in 2014, with additional changes, it drew widespread complaints. TRAGIC was founded as a Facebook group in response, and it grew to thousands of members and organized public protests.
That uproar caused Community Health to act swiftly, adding a co-pay system to the 2014 plan. It also pledged more choices for 2015.
Those choices have been added in 2015 as promised, but some members have complained that the new options are unaffordable. And the former single insurer is still the dominant insurer: More than 80 percent of SHBP members have selected insurance plans from Blue Cross.
Beth Cope, a political and communications consultant whose blog published the state document outlining the $1.8 billion in savings, told GHN she has been overwhelmed by the thousands of people who have clicked on her post.
Teachers and state employees are still feeling pinched by the health plan’s costs, including high deductibles, she says. “The governor never made the plan more affordable.’’
Tim Sweeney, health policy director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, says he wonders how the SHBP is saving the hundreds of millions of dollars, and how that in turn is affecting patients’ health.
The state, under Gov. Deal’s original budget, would save $2.6 million by stripping insurance from school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other non-certificate personnel, Community Health says. That figure looks relatively modest, though the agency says the additional savings to the local school systems would be $78.7 million.
Meanwhile, the bus drivers and cafeteria workers are watching the budget anxiously.
The $103 million that local school districts would have to pay in additional “contributions” to the SHBP for non-certificate workers would severely erode the extra money that Deal and lawmakers promised schools as a way to give teachers raises, eliminate furloughs and restore class time, the AJC recently pointed out.
If a school system can’t afford to pay the extra cost, “it’s going to fall back on the bus drivers,’’ says Anne Walden, who drives a school bus in McDuffie County.
“Somebody’s health is not the place to cut,’’ Walden adds.