LouisianaVoice has learned that Gov. Piyush Jindal plans to move forward with submitting a layoff plan for the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) to the State Civil Service Commission despite failing to obtain sufficient votes to gain legislative approval of a contract with Blue Cross/Blue Shield (BCBS) for the privatization of the agency.
The Jindal administration has been trying for more than a year and a half to privatize the agency that provides health and life insurance coverage to some 226,000 state employees, retirees and their dependents.
Along with efforts to privatize the agency, Jindal is attempting to lay off 177 OGB employees in a move he claims will save the state $20 million despite an initial cost of $70 million of the current OGB fund balance that will be used to pay BCBS to become the agency’s third party administrator (TPA).
State Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), who has been lobbying her fellow House members to oppose the BCBS contract, said Jindal has provided no supporting documentation for the projected savings despite several requests that he do so.
“The Office of Group Benefits does not cost the state any money,” Jackson said on Wednesday. “It is a healthy plan that has always remained viable while offering state employees excellent health care benefits.”
The problem with any effort by the administration to gain approval of its anticipated layoff plan is that justification for any layoff approval is limited to two factors found in chapter 17 of the civil service rules.
To approval a layoff plan, the Civil Service Commission must have irrefutable evidence that there is either:
• A lack of funds to continue paying the employees;
• A lack of work sufficient to justify retaining the employees.
The administration, of course, could push the argument that with the contract with BCBS, there would be insufficient work for the 177 employees to perform at OGB.
That argument, however, would revert back to an attorney general’s opinion that legislative concurrence would be required before the contract with BCBS could become effective.
That attorney general’s opinion was initially requested by Jackson who contended that the legislature should be a part of the decision-making process.
And that brings everything back to Thursday’s joint meeting of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee which was supposed to take up that very issue.
As both sides were still jockeying to line up votes Wednesday afternoon, word came down that the administration had pulled the item from joint committee agenda. The reasons for the deletion varied, depending upon who did the explaining.
Jackson said the delay was simply a matter of the administration’s failure to muster enough votes for approval of the contract.
House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro) said the committee members did not receive the 80-page BCBS contract until Tuesday and had not had an opportunity to review it.
The governor’s office, however, said that several key members of the committee were scheduled to be out of town, so the decision was made to postpone the vote.
The reasons given by Fannin and the administration do not mesh but then legislators have been complaining for some time about a lack of communication between lawmakers and the governor’s office.
The civil service rules and the failure of the joint committee to take up the BCBS contract could present a classic Catch-22 scenario if the administration does follow through as planned.
What initially was touted by the administration as an efficiency move designed to save the state millions of dollars seems to have become a secondary issue to one of Jindal’s obsession of having his way, of winning at all costs.
The latest decision to try and push through a layoff plan appears to be an indication that he is determined to prevail in a game in which he is on one side of a metaphoric chess board and legislators on the other. In the middle are the pawns that he appears all too willing to sacrifice in order to gain an advantage.
Those pawns are state employees.