Facing angry teachers, state pumps $114 million more into health plan

Spurred by angry teachers and a governor seeking re-election, the Department of Community Health board on Monday agreed to spend about $114 million to undo some of the damage it did with new health care plans for state workers.

The State Health Benefit Plan covers 650,000 educators, state employees, retirees and their families. The board voted 5-0 to address perhaps the loudest complaint by restoring copayments to the plan, which had been replaced by much larger out-of-pocket expenses.

The outcry across the state proved too much for Gov. Nathan Deal, who can’t afford to make enemies among Georgia’s more than 100,000 teachers and their families as he seeks a second term.

The new plan was supposed to save $200 million this year. But the expense of giving members back at least part of the old system with copayments will eat into those savings.

“We have discovered once we began the plan year that these changes were not understood by many of our members and that these out-of-pocket expenses have caused some financial stress among our members,” DCH Commissioner Clyde Reese said before the vote.

The switch led to protests from members, who flooded politicians with calls and rallied around a Facebook page that gained more than 11,000 members in a little more than three weeks.

Deal said the plan’s reserves will be used to address the problems, which he blamed partially on the federal Affordable Care Act, which he opposed. However, Deal’s agency developed the plan to save money last year because officials didn’t think the state could afford to continue the copayments that were ultimately reinstated on Monday.

“I don’t think there should be any political blame at all,” Deal said. “We’re trying to do what’s best for the citizens of our state and the taxpayers, as well as those who work for our state.”

The governor said the changes approved Monday will “address many of the concerns that were expressed” by teachers and other critics.

The move was greeted with cheers by many educators. But the grassroots group TRAGIC — Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes — said it was reserving final judgment until supporters conducted a more thorough review.

“It does not address all of the shortcomings in the current plan, and we will have to examine the plan closely to see how it affects members,” said Ashley Cline, the group’s founder and wife of a Cherokee County science teacher. “Hopefully by shifting to copays for office and ER visits, state employees will not have to worry about going bankrupt if they become seriously ill or have an accident.”

Tracey Nelson, lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators teachers group, praised the agency’s decision but noted there are “still questions regarding lack of provider options and coverage throughout the state.”

DCH decided to have only one company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, manage the $3 billion plan. One of the old plan managers, UnitedHealthcare, and others are suing the state, claiming DCH resorted to “state-sponsored bid-rigging” in awarding the contracts.

Health officials said the changes approved Monday will be retroactive to Jan. 1. That should mean members who made big out-of-pocket payments will receive at least partial reimbursement, but how the process will work has yet to be finalized.

Democrats in the General Assembly have filed legislation demanding two or more companies be chosen to offer plans in the future. One of the co-sponsors, state Sen. Nan Orrock of Atlanta, said teachers and state employees, many of whom have not had raises since the start of the Great Recession, are fed up.

“This is kind of the last straw,” she said. “After all the furloughs and frozen wages, the lack of recognition, 12 years of cuts to education, and now you’re going to totally screw me on my health plan?”

Orrock praised TRAGIC and other teachers and state employees for forcing the administration to back down, although she noted that it didn’t hurt that this is an election year for Deal.

“The fact that there is a statewide election with legitimate challengers makes all the difference in the responsiveness of the GOP on this,” Orrock said.

The insurance switch has created political headaches for the governor that likely won’t be quelled any time soon. State Superintendent John Barge, who is challenging Deal in the GOP primary, called for an independent investigation into how the contract was awarded.

And Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, who is running against Deal and whose family is on the state plan, urged teachers to channel their anger into political activism.

“The governor is admitting his mistake and changing the plan,” Carter said in a post on Facebook. “Be emboldened by this victory, but recognize that this issue is a symptom of a much deeper attitude toward education, and we have to fight that deep-seeded attitude until it’s gone.”

Email James Salzer or Greg Bluestein.

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