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Archive for the ‘Layoffs’ Category

If ever there was an appropriate analogy to the old expression rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s methods of dealing with successive years of budgetary shortfalls (read: deficits) would have to be it.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) now has openly defied him (each member, even down to former Jindal cabinet appointee Scott Angelle) on his order for the commission to render unto Caesar Jindal 13 PSC vehicles to be included with about 700 other vehicles to be auctioned early next year in an effort to raise some $1.4 million ($2,000 per vehicle).

That is significant because unless we missed something somewhere along the way, that is the very first time any state agency, the legislature included, has stood up to this little bantam rooster. Tommy Teague did and was fired but the agency he headed, the Office of Group Benefits, went quietly to the slaughter like so many sheep.

Legislators, fearing capital outlay cuts in their districts or demotion from plum committee assignments, have likewise been strangely quiet as a group with only the occasional individual protests.

That move of selling off vehicles is more like the analogy of robbing your kid’s piggy bank to meet the mortgage payment than any real solution to a much larger problem and raises the logical question: what will the administration do next to scrape together a few dollars?

And the news only gets worse for Jindal’s fading presidential aspirations (hopes that themselves are a joke because something that doesn’t exist already can’t very well fade.

Even more ominous than ripping vehicles from state agencies, is the looming certainty of more mid-year cuts and employee layoffs in the wake of growing budgetary ills. Those fortunate enough to avert the layoffs will see no merit increases for FY-16 and contract reductions are expected to continue—except for certain favored contractors favored by our transparent governor. No agency head in his right mind would cut funds for a contractor with a close Jindal connections (read: campaign contributions).

In the meantime, we will also be curious to see if any of those six-figure Jindal appointees are among those being laid off. You can most likely check that box “No.”

Jindal, of course (along with most legislators) has been blaming the state’s worsening fiscal condition on the precipitous drop in crude oil prices.

Not so, says long-time state government observer and chief curmudgeon and former legislative assistant C.B. Forgotston.

Here’s the way he explains it:

            If one merely looks the “spot” prices regularly reported in the media it seems like much bigger issue. It’s nothing like the “oil bust” of the 1980s. At that time a majority of the state revenues were from oil severance taxes. That is no longer the case.

            Additionally, the state’s severance tax revenues are based on the contract price, not the “spot” price that is regularly reported in the media. For example, some of the companies currently drilling in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale have pre-sold their potential finds at $96 per barrel. That is the price on which the taxes will be paid. The consensus in the oil industry is the current downturn in oil prices is temporary. It may last 6 months or it may last a year; it is not a forever thing.

            Also reducing the impact on state revenues, as pointed out by Legislative Fiscal Office economist Greg Albrecht, low oil prices means savings for consumers. Their spending shifts to other items on which sales taxes are collected. For businesses, especially small businesses, it means more profit which means higher income taxes.

The major problem in the current budget and creating the $1.4B shortfall projected for next year’s budget is not a reduction in revenues, but overspending. Overall revenues have grown every year that Jindal has been governor. However, he and the legislators have consistently spent not only one-time revenues on recurring expenses, but imagined revenues under the guise of “efficiencies” which cannot be measured.

            Blaming oil prices is merely a scapegoat for passing fiscally-irresponsible budgets for the last 7 years.  Don’t let those responsible avoid the blame. It’s time to hold Jindal and the legislators’ feet to the fire by telling them to set better priorities based on real, as opposed to imagined, revenues and amorphous efficiencies.

They’ve got one more time to get it right in the 2015 Regular Session. If they don’t the first order of business for the new governor and new legislators in early 2016 will be to hold a special session to raise taxes and reduce services to balance the final Jindal budget.

And lest anyone might be foolish enough to write Forgotston off because he retired and no longer involved in day to day state matters, that would be a serious mistake. But even discounting Forgotston, we have Greg Albrecht, chief economist for the Legislative Fiscal Office, weighing in on the subject. And he is very much involved in the day to day operations of the state.

Albrecht takes a different tact in explaining how we got where we are. http://theadvocate.com/news/11102302-123/economist-greg-albrecht-louisiana-tax

Albrecht says that priorities for spending state revenue on such pesky items as education, infrastructure and social services are set only after we first dole out billions of dollars in tax credits, rebates and exemptions that place a terrific drain on state financial resources.

Here’s one that he didn’t mention but which we feel is worth pointing out: if the NFL awards a Super Bowl to New Orleans, Saints owner Tom Benson gets a cool million dollars from the state. That has already happened once since that condition was included in a generous incentive package negotiated to keep the Saints in New Orleans.

Another practice that has since terminated but which cost the state millions: when a visiting NFL team such as Atlanta, Tampa Bay, etc., played in New Orleans, every traveling member of that team—players, coaches, support personnel, etc.—was required to pay state income tax on 1/16th of his income. That individual, after all, received 1/16th of his salary in Louisiana. As soon as the Louisiana Department of Revenue received a check for those taxes, the state cut a check for an identical amount to Benson.

Albrecht said many of the tax breaks are “open-ended spending” and unappropriated. “It’s on autopilot” and the spending “is the priority” of state government because all other spending is secondary.

He said attempts to curtail the programs have run into resistance in the form of screams of protest from business interests who would be impacted. They consistently deflect talk of costs to the state by parroting the old line about the economic benefits of the programs designed to attract certain businesses or to assist certain segments of the citizenry.

But when Enterprise Zone exemptions are used to build Wal-Mart stores in affluent communities like St. Tammany Parish (where two have been built using the program), one must wonder at the benefits derived from a program designed to uplift pockets of high unemployment.

Companies pay about $500 million to local governments in property taxes on inventory that is considered property and the state simply reimburses those companies dollar for dollar. “We’re on the hook for whatever the local assessor puts down,” Albrecht said. http://www.thenewsstar.com/story/news/local/louisiana/2014/12/15/state-gives-away-billion-tax-breaks/20460681/

He said legislators have asked that he examine the various tax breaks for possible cutbacks and while Rep. Joel Robideaux (R-Lafayette), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee which deals with taxes, feels legislation will be filed to alter some of the tax credits, he is realistic in the knowledge that any attempt to amend or eliminate the breaks could be vetoed by this corporate welfare-happy governor.

“The veto pen will determine what passes or not,” Robideaux said. “The question is, ‘Can we craft legislation that will avoid the veto pen?’”

Earlier this year, Sen. Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville) managed to get overwhelming passage of a bill that called for more oversight of the tax break programs by the state’s income-forecasting panel.

But Jindal, who never met a tax break he didn’t like, promptly vetoed the bill, saying it could effectively force a tax increase on businesses by limiting spending for the incentive programs.

You gotta give Jindal credit for creativity, though. Only he could twist the definition of removal of a tax break for business into a tax increase even while ignoring the fact that removal of those tax breaks could—and would—mean long-term relief for Louisiana citizens who are the ones shouldering the load. And for him to willingly ignore that fact borders on malfeasance.

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Some things never change when it comes to doing business with the State of Louisiana.

Several business owners have, over the past couple of years, told LouisianaVoice they would never bid on a state contract because, they said, the bid process and contracts are rigged, or at least weighted, heavily in favor of pre-selected vendors.

Now, three separate sources have come forward to offer specifics that support that claim as it regards a request for proposals (RFP) for renewal of an existing $75 million contract.

One of our very first stories under the LouisianaVoice banner was the manner in which Gov. Bobby Jindal went about privatizing his very first state agency, the Office of Risk Management (ORM), throwing nearly 100 employees out of work in the process.

Now we learn the story of F.A. Richard & Associates (FARA), the Mandeville company the state initially paid $68 million to take over as third party administrator (TPA) of ORM has taken yet another interesting twist.

Well, make that two interesting twists—including a third violation of the original contract between the Division of Administration (DOA) and FARA and now it seems there may be a strong case made for bid manipulation on the part of the state.

The reason we said the state initially paid $68 million is because eight months after that 2011 takeover, FARA was back asking—and getting—an amendment to its contract which boosted the contract amount by exactly 10 percent, or $6.8 million, bringing the total cost to just a tad under $75 million. An obscure state regulation allowed a one-time amendment to contracts for up to (drum roll, please)…10 percent.

Then, less than a month after the contract was amended by that $6.8 million, FARA sold its state contract to Avizent, an Ohio company, which kept the contract for about four months before it sold out to York Risk Services Group of Parsippany, New Jersey.

Last month, it was announced that Onex Corp., a Toronto-based private equity firm, had finalized a deal to acquire York for $1.325 billion.

In each case, the name FARA was retained “for branding purposes,” according to one former FARA employee, but there was no getting around the fact that the state’s contract was—and is—being shifted from one company to another until the latest deal that placed in the possession of a foreign corporation.

The original contract with FARA stipulates that the contract may not be sold, transferred or re-assigned without “prior written authority” from DOA.

LouisianaVoice, of course, made the appropriate public records request for that “prior written authority” right after it was sold the first time—to Avizent. After the usual delays in responding, DOA finally sent us an email which said no such document existed.

So, now we a contract the very specific terms of which have openly violated not once, not twice, but three times and the state has remained silent on this point.

Jindal, in case you need a reminder, is the same Louisiana governor who only last Friday criticized President Obama of “flaunting the law” in his executive action granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.

But as bad as the contract shuffling might be, ongoing efforts to rig the bidding process for a renewal of the five-year contract in FARA’s favor would appear to be far more serious.

Three separate sources—one employed by DOA and the other two former employees of first ORM and, after ORM was privatized, FARA, said that FARA had been requested to assist in drafting a new RFP in such a way as to guarantee that FARA would retain the contract.

Both former FARA employees, interviewed separately, said a staff meeting of FARA employees was held in Lafayette last April and again in May. On both occasions, they said, FARA management assured them that the company had been asked to assist ORM in drafting the RFP and that FARA was certain to win renewal of the contract, which expires next July 1.

“We were all told to update our resumés so they could be used in beefing up FARA’s proposal,” said one of the former employees.

If true, that would constitute bid rigging in almost any law book and should prompt an immediate investigation. This would be an ideal opportunity for someone to awaken East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore to see if he is up to performing his duties.

Wasn’t that, after all, the basis for the investigation of Bruce Greenstein and the $189 million contract to his former employer, CNSI? That was the investigation that led to his nine-count indictment for perjury.

Having said that, if there are any other business owners who have had unpleasant experiences in bidding on state contracts, or who feel they have been shut out of the process through favoritism we would love to hear from you. Our email address is: louisianavoice@yahoo.com or louisianavoice@cox.net

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If further evidence is needed that Kristy Kreme Nichols and Susan West are trying to shovel water with a pitchfork in their efforts to put a good face on the looming changes in the Office of Group Benefits (OGB), LouisianaVoice has learned of more developments that aren’t very pretty and which are sure to only intensify the confusion and indecision accompanying the pending open enrollment period that begins on Oct. 1 and runs through Oct. 31.

And now you can add another name to the mix—that of newly hired (at $106,512 per year) Group Benefits Administrator Elise Cazes, formerly an executive with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana, which serves at the OGB third party administrator for OGB’s preferred provider organization (PPO).

Nichols, meanwhile, keeps churning out all those happy face news releases—some even written by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s communications officer Mike Reed but published in the Baton Rouge Advocate under her byline—in an attempt to assuage the concerns of some 230,000 state employees, retirees and dependents now covered by OGB.

But now, in addition to the administration’s losing credibility with its rosy assurances in Louisiana, OGB customer service efforts appear to be coming unraveled in California—and perhaps even Florida—at a cost of $1 million to Louisiana taxpayers.

A week ago, we told you about the state’s $1 million contract with Ansafone of Santa Ana, California, and Ocala, Florida (okay, we first said it was Answerphone of Albany, New York and that the contract was for $2 million, but our IT (I’m Telling) source in Nichols’ office was incorrect on those points).

At any rate, the state hired Ansafone to hire 100 persons in California and another 100 in Florida to man phone banks to field questions from OGB members. Not only was it absurd (not to mention heartless) to fire two dozen OGB employees recently because there was “not enough work” for them, but to then pay an out-of-state firm to hire phone bank employees in California and Florida—employees completely unfamiliar with OGB’s proposed coverage plans—was nothing less than insulting, not to mention shortsighted and yes, stupid.

To illustrate our point, we received word today (Thursday) out of California of what can best be described as a monumental disaster in the making. The preparations being made in Santa Ana have all the clearheaded thinking of a sack of rats in a burning meth lab, to paraphrase a line from Two and a-Half Men.

It seems that the job fair for prospective employees to man the phones more closely resembled a cattle call, a term normally used to describe open auditions for movie and television parts. That’s where actors and actresses (in this case prospective telephone service representatives) show up en masse for auditions (job interviews).

Except in this case there were no interviews of any of the 80 or so applicants who showed up. Instead, they were shown a video presentation that passed for orientation at the end of which they were all congratulated on their new jobs. No interviews, no screening, no background checks. Hired.

There followed six days of “training,” that consisted of the reading of handouts distributed to the new employees. “They read to us verbatim from a two-inch-thick document,” said one of the hires who asked that his name not be revealed. “Half of those there kept falling asleep.”

He said the OGB representative, Elise Cazes, asked for feedback from the new employees, some of whom failed to return for the second day of “training.”

“It was not until our first day on the phones that they told us the information they had tried drilling into us was wrong,” he said, adding that they were told to instead use “the knowledge base on the computer.”

He said the problem with that was the knowledge base, which contains a dozen or so links “only comes up when there is a call coming through,” making it impossible to access the data in advance.

“If I take a call, I like to be able to answer questions without having to put him on hold while I search for the proper link to access so the caller does not think I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” he said.

“I expressed my concerns about this and I asked for printouts of the correct information. I thought they were serious when they said they wanted feedback. I was wrong. Wednesday was my day off and I was called at home and told the client no longer wanted me on the project.”

The “client,” he said, was OGB and the directive came from Cazes.

At least you have to give her credit: she certainly learned quickly that dissention is not tolerated by Jindal and his hand puppets.

Our source said the people Ansafone and OGB have answering insurance plan questions “are grossly unprepared for the questions that plan members have or are going to have with open enrollment begins. The slapped everything together,” he said.

“My last day there (Tuesday) they were still purchasing computers and setting them up. They ran out of room and had to set up in a warehouse with no air conditioning,” he said. “They were running fiber optic cable and wires everywhere.

“I feel bad for these people who are going to be calling. They’re (OGB and Ansafone) are doing everything on the fly. The system is middle school at best. There are going to be dropped calls, incorrect answers and a multitude of other problems,” he said.

He said members who do not select a plan or who do so incorrectly will be automatically defaulted to the Pelican HRA 1000 plan which is the least desirable of the four plans OGB will offer next year.

As you read this, keep in mind that Ansafone’s web page somewhat prophetically contains its “five Star Recipe for Customer Service Failure.” http://www.ansafone.com/five-star-recipe-for-customer-service-failure/

Oops. Looks like that page has been taken down since we called attention to it last Friday. Perhaps Ansafone took one look at the OGB open enrollment plan and saw customer service failure in the cards. And a million bucks can cause you to compromise on otherwise strongly held principles.

Nevertheless, the recipe is was so rich in irony that we can’t resist giving you the three main ingredients again:

  • A “tablespoon of no communication.”
  • A “dash of not caring.”
  • “4 ounces of empty promises.”

OGB members may wish to start a check list to keep score on the accuracy of that recipe just for the fun of it.

The legislature is scheduled to review the OGB Health benefits in the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Friday (Sept. 19) and in the House Appropriations Committee next Thursday (Sept. 25).

Additionally, OGB has scheduled a series of meetings throughout the state during October to answer questions about the open enrollment.

https://www.groupbenefits.org/portal/pls/portal30/ogbweb.get_latest_news_file?p_doc_name=4D7A497A4F4445794D793551524559334D6A4531

The information OGB has supplied for annual enrollment leaves many questions unanswered.

One reader has compiled a list of questions that need to be answered before making an informed choice. The questions that should be posed to OGB during these hearings are as follows..

  • The flexible benefits guide for 2015 is not on the website.  Are the IRS maximums of $2500 still applicable?
  • The benefit comparisons do not include any mention of laboratory and radiology services. Are these subject to the deductible? Also, what are the co-pay and/or co-insurance amounts for each plan?
  • Annual mammograms are currently covered with no charge for OGB members. Will this continue? What about pathology for well women pap-smears?
  • Are the co-insurance amounts computed on the contract rate for in-network providers? What about the co-insurance computation for out of network providers—is this on the contract rate or provider charges?
  • Are the listed deductibles for in-network providers a separate amount from the listed deductible for out of network providers? Example, is the total deductible for in-network and out-of-network providers for Pelican HRA 1000 $2000 + $4000 for $6000 deductible? Is this the same answer for all plans?
  • For Out-of-Pocket Maximums (OOPM), once the OOPM is reached, are all services/benefits covered at 100%? Are the OOPMs for in-network providers a separate amount form the listed OOPM for out-of-network providers? Example, is the total OOPMs for in-network and out-of-network providers for Pelican HRA 1000 $5,000 + $10,000 for $15,000 OOPMs? Is this the same answer for all plans?

The problem is the only ones who might have an interest in the OGB open enrollment and the options offered are state employees.

And state employees who ask questions are subject to being teagued.

Ah, but there is a silver lining.

All the meetings, including the legislative committee meetings, are scheduled during the work day which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many state employees and teachers to attend.

So it appears your jobs are safe for now even if your medical coverage is not.

Whew! That was close!

 

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Remember less than two weeks ago (Aug. 14, to be precise) we wrote that members of the Louisiana Office of Group Benefits (OGB) should prepare themselves for health insurance premium sticker shock? http://louisianavoice.com/2014/08/14/nichols-pens-op-ed-on-soundness-of-ogb-even-as-legislative-fiscal-office-prepares-members-for-premium-sticker-shock/

Well, LouisianaVoice has obtained new information that indicates we weren’t entirely accurate in our portrayal of what’s in store for some 230,000 state employees, retirees and their dependents.

The reality is much worse.

Much worse indeed, particularly for state retirees.

To recap briefly, we told you in that Aug. 14 posting about the report of the Legislative Fiscal Office on pending major changes in medical coverage for state employees and retirees. Some of those anticipated changes provided in the Legislative Fiscal Officer Report, authored by Legislative Fiscal Officer John Carpenter and Legislative Fiscal Office Section Director J. Travis McIlwain, include:

  • An increase in premiums state employees and retirees pay for health coverage;
  • Significantly increase the out-of-pocket maximum for all health plan options;
  • Increasing deductibles for all health plan options;
  • Increasing co-pays 100 percent for those proposed health plans with co-pays;
  • Increasing the out-of-pocket maximum for the prescription drug benefit by $300 from $1,200 to $1,500 per year, a 20 percent increase;
  • Requiring prior authorizations for certain medical procedures;
  • Eliminating the out-of-network benefit for some health plan options;
  • Removing all vision coverage from the health plan options.

OGB Report_July 2014 FOR JLCB

The latest premium increase of 6 percent will go into effect on Jan. 1 is on top of a 5 percent increase implemented on July 1 of this year.

State Treasurer John Kennedy, on the heels of the Legislative Fiscal Office Report, penned an op-piece in the Baton Rouge Advocate in which he advised state employees to be careful to not break a leg as the increased premiums and co-payments “could cost you a month’s pay. http://theadvocate.com/home/10028534-123/gues-column-changes-mean-problems

The changes mentioned thus far are, of course, mostly the result of that $7.2 million—and growing—consulting contract awarded to Alvarez & Marsal which was charged with sniffing out $500 million in state savings over the next five years—something Gov. Bobby Jindal apparently felt his highly-paid cabinet appointees were incapable of accomplishing.

Of course Jindal’s plan for saving $20 million a year through the privatization of OGB has been less than a smashing success as the agency has hemorrhaged red ink to the tune of $16 million more per month than it receives in premiums since the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana takeover on Jan. 1, 2013.

BCBS is paid by the state on the basis of enrollees. The initial rate beginning in January of 2013 was $23.50 per OGB member per month. Today, that rate is $24.50 and in January, it will go to $25.50 per member per month.

But now LouisianaVoice has obtained information from deep within the inner sanctum of BCBS that OGB is planning even more drastic changes. So, in effect, OGB members are about to be hit with a double whammy, or in more chic vernacular, the perform storm, designed to force retirees out of OGB coverage and into Medicare.

And OGB is completely complicit in this portentous plan.

The sweeping changes are scheduled to be mailed to employees and retirees on Sept. 15 but we have the gist of the plan now.

First of all, all current plans are going to disappear, especially the one that are geared toward retirees. The PPO, or Preferred Provider Organization plan, currently has four levels: Active, Retiree No Medicare, Retiree with Medicare and Retiree 100 (a supplemental program designed for retirees with high medical costs. This program requires a separate premium and currently is only available through the PPO plan).

Now, though, there will be only four plans and none will have levels geared toward retirees, meaning that retirees will be paying more out of pocket. This is the method by which Jindal, through OGB, plans to push retirees to drop their OGB coverage and switch to only having Medicare.

Such a move, of course, would drastically reduce the amount the state would be required to pay BCBS, thus reducing the monthly deficit currently being experienced by OGB. The premium increase next January, along with the reduced benefits would cut that deficit more as the administration grapples with the can of worms it opened by turning over the third party administrative duties to BCBS.

But even worse, state employees who never worked in the private sector prior to April 1, 1986, do not qualify for Medicare. State employees hired after that date began paying into Medicare. Moreover, state employees who never worked in the private sector do not qualify for Social Security benefits. http://www.treasury.louisiana.gov/Lists/SiteArticlesByCat/DispForm_Single.aspx?List=c023d63e%2Dac65%2D439d%2Daf97%2Dda71d8688dff&ID=101

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, try as she might, was unable to put much positive spin on OGB’s status in her recent op-ed column. http://lapolitics.com/2014/08/nichols-ogb-prepared-for-changing-world-of-health-care/

Nor was the self-serving op-ed piece by OGB board member Scott McKnight in Tuesday’s Advocate particularly reassuring. http://theadvocate.com/home/10088672-123/guest-commentary-ogb-changes-helping

(Is it just us, or do the administration and BCBS suddenly seem terribly eager to launch a media blitz to convince us against overwhelming evidence to the contrary that what they’re planning to roll out at the approaching  open enrollment is in the best interest of state employees and retirees? An even better question is do they really believe we’re stupid enough to buy into their empty promises?)

Second, and probably the most inane change is the renaming of all the plans from HMO (Health Maintenance Organization), PPO and CDHP (Consumer Directed Health Plan, formerly High Deductible Plan, changed to CDHP to make it sound more appealing) to confusing names like Magnolia Local, Pelican HRA, etc.

That tactic would appear to simply create confusion for elderly members.

But even more duplicitous is the provision that all OGB members must choose a new plan for the 2015 year during the upcoming open enrollment. If not, then they will automatically be placed in the HRA plan which is the worst of the four plans OGB will offer next year. It is a high deductible plan with have no coordination of benefits with any other coverage.

The big concern here is for members who have moved but never updated their addresses with their Human Resources departments or with OGB. If they don’t get the notices mailed out on Sept. 15 and fail to choose a plan or if they are incapacitated in nursing homes and have no family watching out for them, they will automatically be dispatched to the HRA plan.

HR officers will become responsible for retiree maintenance. Accordingly, retiree records definitely need to be updated in employees’ and retirees’ respective HR offices. But with all the closures and privatizations, many retirees and/or HR offices do not know who will have the retiree maintenance. Several other changes include dependent verification and late applications. All these changes will have to be made with an antiquated electronic enrollment system designed and maintained by the same OGB IT staff that was recently consolidated under DOA and which no longer belongs to OGB.

Further complicating matters is Jindal’s gutting of OGB staff to the point that the office now has only a handful of employees taking phone calls from members. So the administration has suggested that BCBS get its employees to handle the spillover calls.

But while OGB representatives are authorized to offer advice to members on what plans they should choose, BCBS employees are not. So, BCBS is hiring about 20 temps to take phone calls from members regarding the plan changes for 2015. These temps will, in all probability, simply refer callers back to OGB, which would appear to be a poor way to communicate with members about such important changes.

How bad is the HRA plan? Well, for openers, and deductibles will increase from modest amounts to thousands of dollars, the economic effect of which could be devastating to employees and retirees alike.

Lest anyone forget, it was Jindal who pushed the privatization of OGB, even jettisoning Tommy Teague as executive director of the agency when he didn’t jump on board the privatization train. It wasn’t enough that Teague had taken OGB from a $60 million deficit to a $520 million surplus, Jindal insisted the move, which included putting more than 150 OGB employees out of work, would save the state $20 million per year. The plan thus far has proved a complete fiscal disaster.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite), who is an announced candidate for governor in the 2015 election, agrees.

“The OGB fiasco is proof positive that privatization for the sake of privatization is foolish,” he said. “A reserve balance that recently exceeded $500 million is half that now and bleeding $16 million per month due to mismanagement and budget chicanery, and the ultimate price will be paid by state retirees and employees through higher premiums, higher co-pays, higher deductibles, and higher co-insurance in exchange for fewer benefits, more forced generic drugs, and more preclearance of needed treatments and other changes that make crystal clear that the OGB beneficiaries will pay more for less.”

In an effort to prevent unwanted surprises in health care coverage following the upcoming enrollment period, it is important to remember three important things:

  • All members should immediately update their addresses with their HR departments or with OGB;
  • Make certain that elderly retirees, retirees in nursing homes, etc., have updated addresses;
  • Make certain that all retirees on Medicare have sent an updated copy of their Medicare cards into OGB.

These are three things that are critical to state employees and retirees as the 2015 plans changes approach.

 

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The underhanded attempt to rip off the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSRPS) on behalf of State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson (aka “Precious”) through a shady back door amendment steered through the Legislature by State Sen. Neil Riser wasn’t the first time that the agency charged with protecting Louisiana citizens has illicitly commandeered state funds on behalf of one of its own.

And, it seems, the more deeply we venture down the rabbit hole that is the Department of Public Safety (DPS), the uglier and scarier the unfolding picture becomes.

In April of 2010, the Jindal administration, in an offer to implement across the board savings, made a one-time incentive package offer to various state agencies as a means to encourage state employees to take early retirement.

Handled properly, it appeared at the time—and still does appear—to have been an economical and compassionate way to nudge employees who wanted out but who could not afford to retire, into making the decision to walk away, thus reducing the number of state employees which in turn translated to long-term savings in salaries and benefits paid by the state.

On April 23 of that year, DPS Deputy Undersecretary Jill Boudreaux sent an email to all personnel informing them that the Department of Civil Service and the Louisiana State Police Commission had approved the retirement incentive as a “Layoff Avoidance Plan.”

In legal-speak, under the incentive eligible applicants would receive a payment of 50 percent of the savings realized by DPS for one year from the effective date of the employee’s retirement.

In simpler language, the incentive was simply 50 percent of the employee’s annual salary. If an employee making $50,000 per year, for example, was approved for the incentive, he or she would walk away with $25,000 in up-front payments, plus his or her regular retirement and the agency would save one-half of her salary from the date of retirement to the end of the fiscal year. The higher the salary, the higher the potential savings.

The program, offered to the first 20 DPS employees to sign up via an internet link on a specific date, was designed to save the state many times that amount over the long haul. If, for example, 20 employees, each making $50,000 a year, took advantage of the incentive, DPS theoretically would realize a savings of $1 million per year thereafter following the initial retirement year.

That formula, repeated in multiple agencies, could produce a savings of several million—not that much in terms of a $25 billion state budget, but a savings nonetheless.

The policy did come with one major caveat from the Department of Civil Service, however. Agencies were cautioned not to circumvent the program through the state’s obscure retire-rehire policy whereby several administrative personnel, the most notable being former Secretary of Higher Education Sally Clausen, have “retired,” only to be “rehired” a day or so later in order to reap a monetary windfall.

“We strongly recommend that agencies exercise caution in re-hiring an employee who has received a retirement incentive payment within the same budget unit until it can be clearly demonstrated that the projected savings have been realized,” the Civil Service communique said.

And, to again quote our favorite redneck playwright from Denham on Amite, Billy Wayne Shakespeare from his greatest play, Hamlet Bob, “Aye, that’s the rub.” (often misquoted as “Therein lies the rub.”)

Basically, to realize a savings under the early retirement incentive payout, an agency would have had to wait at least a year before rehiring an employee who had retired under the program.

Boudreaux, by what many in DPS feel was more than mere happenstance, managed to be the first person to sign up on the date the internet link opened up for applications.

In Boudreaux’s case, her incentive payment was based on an annual salary of about $92,000 so her incentive payment was around $46,000. In addition, she was also entitled to payment of up to 300 hours of unused annual leave which came to another $13,000 or so for a total of about $59,000 in walk-around money.

Her retirement date was April 28 but the day before, on April 27, she double encumbered herself into the classified (Civil Service) Deputy Undersecretary position because another employee was promoted into her old position on April 26.

A double incumbency is when an employee is appointed to a position that is already occupied by an incumbent, in this case, Boudreaux’s successor. Double incumbencies are mostly used for smooth succession planning initiatives when the incumbent of a position (Boudreaux, in this case) is planning to retire, according to the Louisiana Department of Civil Service.

http://www.civilservice.louisiana.gov/files/HRHandbook/JobAid/5-Double%20Incumbency.pdf

Here’s the kicker: agencies are not required to report double incumbencies to the Civil Service Department if the separation or retirement will last for fewer than 30 days. And because State Civil Service is not required to fund double incumbencies, everything is conveniently kept in-house and away from public scrutiny.

On April 30, under the little-known retire-rehire policy, Boudreaux was rehired two days after her “retirement,” but this time at the higher paying position of Undersecretary, an unclassified, or appointive position.

What’s more, though she “retired” as Deputy Undersecretary on April 28, her “retirement” was inexplicably calculated based on the higher Undersecretary position’s salary, a position she did not assume until April 30—two days after her “retirement,” sources inside DPS told LouisianaVoice.

Following her maneuver, then-Commissioner of Administration Angelé Davis apparently saw through the ruse and reportedly ordered Boudreaux to repay her incentive payment as well as the payment for her 300 hours of annual leave, according to those same DPS sources.

It was about this time, however, that Davis left Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to take a position in the private sector. Paul Rainwater, Jindal’s former Deputy Chief of Staff, was named to succeed Davis on June 24, 2010, and the matter of Boudreaux’s payment quickly slipped through the cracks and was never repaid.

This occurred, it should be noted, at a time when state employees, including state police, (except for a few of Edmonson’s top aides, who we plan to discuss in future posts) were already into a period of five or six years of going without pay raises because of the state’s financial condition which has deteriorated in each year of Jindal’s administration.

Meanwhile, Jill Boudreaux continues in her position of Undersecretary of the Department of Public Safety at her present salary of $118,600 per year.

Now that we have shone a little light on her retire-rehire ploy, the question becomes this: Will anyone in the Jindal administration look into this matter and demand that she repay the money—with interest?

Or will the governor, who insisted as Candidate Jindal that “it is time we declare war on the incompetence and corruption” https://www.nrapvf.org/articles/20070720/nra-pvf-endorses-congressman-bobby-jindal-for-governor-of-louisiana

and that incompetence and corruption “will not be tolerated,” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15503722

and that he has “zero tolerance for wrongdoing,” http://theadvocate.com/home/5500946-125/federal-grand-jury-looks-at

continue to ignore problems at home as he racks up frequent flyer miles in quest of the presidency that is far beyond his grasp?

Governor, the ball is now in your court.

Put up or shut up.

 

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Tomorrow (Aug. 15) is the last day for 24 employees of the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) but the bad news doesn’t end there, LouisianaVoice has learned.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols’ glowing guest column about the condition of OGB in Jeremy Alford’s Louisiana Politics notwithstanding, some 230,000 state employees, retirees and their dependents are in for some serious sticker shock.

http://lapolitics.com/2014/08/nichols-ogb-prepared-for-changing-world-of-health-care/

Even as Nichols babbled on about providing “better service and care to its members” while at the same time employing the by now tired and time-worn Jindal tactic of blaming everyone but Jindal for rising health care costs, the Legislative Fiscal Office was dropping a bombshell in announcing dramatic increases in health care insurance premiums for state employees coupled with benefits that will be undergoing deep cuts.

OGB Report_July 2014 FOR JLCB

Blaming the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and an aging population for rising health care costs, Nichols said “financially responsible practices” are necessary to continue providing benefits. She conveniently neglected to mention that it was the Jindal administration’s decision a year ago to lower premiums as a means of lowering the state’s 75 percent match, thereby freeing up money to plug gaping holes in Jindal’s makeshift budget.

That move, of course, help decimate OGB’s reserve fund. What started out as a $540 million surplus a year ago now stands at less than half that.

“At first glance it may seem like having a fund that large is a great thing,” she wrote. “But in reality, keeping hundreds of millions unnecessarily locked up in a reserve fund was not the best use of taxpayer money.

“Considering that the state funds 75 percent of member premiums through taxpayer dollars, letting that large of a balance sit unused meant that those funds weren’t being used for other important projects,” she said.

Nichols, of course, overlooks the fact that successful insurance companies keep health reserve funds in cases of a natural disaster or major epidemic. Companies who only manage to pay claims out of premiums on the other hand, traditionally don’t survive.

Her entire 800-word piece never once mentioned that state employees and retirees would soon be asked to pay significantly higher premiums for equally significantly reduced benefits. Instead, she parsed words, saying, “Plan changes for fiscal year 2015 are estimated to lower expected claims costs by $131.8 million…”

That sounds pretty good until you read the first page of the nine-page report released Monday by Legislative Fiscal Officer John Carpenter and Legislative Fiscal Office Section Director J. Travis McIlwain.

State employee health plan changes, according to the report, include, among other things:

  • An increase in premiums state employees and retirees pay for health coverage;
  • Significantly increase the out-of-pocket maximum for all health plan options;
  • Increasing deductibles for all health plan options;
  • Increasing co-pays 100 percent for those proposed health plans with co-pays;
  • Increasing the out-of-pocket maximum for the prescription drug benefit by $300 from $1,200 to $1,500 per year, a 20 percent increase;
  • Requiring prior authorizations for certain medical procedures;
  • Eliminating the out-of-network benefit for some health plan options;
  • Removing all vision coverage from the health plan options.

The latest premium increase of 6 percent will go into effect on Jan. 1 is on top of a 5 percent increase implemented on July 1 of this year.

Of course, the revamp of OGB premiums and benefits was the result of the infamous Alvarez & Marsal (A&M) study.

The really amazing thing about that is Jindal rushed into the OGB privatization convinced he could do no wrong and that his was the only way and that the state was going to save millions. Yet, when things started going south, he calls in the big A&M guns.

Not only that, he forked over $199,752 to A&M to learn the best way to screw state employees.

Speaking of A&M, the contract with the firm was originally for a little more than $4.2 million but was promptly amended by $794,678, bumping the amount up to a cool $5 million. The problem with that is state law allows only a one-time contract amendment of no more than 10 percent without legislative concurrence. The amendment was for 18.9 percent.

As if that were not egregious enough, the Division of Administration subsequently amended the contract by yet another $2.4 million in May—again without bothering to obtain the legally mandated concurrence from the legislature.

Nothing, it seems, is beneath this administration.

Well, don’t say you weren’t warned. LouisianaVoice said before the OGB privatization ever took place that it would be necessary to raise premiums or lower benefits.

But Jindal, wunderkind that he is, insisted his privatization plan, ripped straight from the pages of the handbook of his only private sector employer, McKinsey & Co., would be more cost efficient than having those lazy state workers process claims and that the state would save money.

And lest you forget, McKinsey advised AT&T in 1980 there was no future in cell phones.

And of course, McKinsey developed the flawless business plan for Enron.

To a degree Jindal is correct; the state will now save money—on the backs of state employees.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite), who is an announced candidate for governor in the 2015 election agrees.

“The OGB fiasco is proof positive that privatization for the sake of privatization is foolish,” he said. “A reserve balance that recently exceeded $500 million is half that now and  bleeding $16M per month due to mismanagement and budget chicanery, and the ultimate price will be paid by state retirees and employees through higher premiums, higher co-pays, higher deductibles, and higher co-insurance in exchange for fewer benefits, more forced generic drugs, and more preclearance of needed treatments and other changes that make crystal clear that the OGB beneficiaries will pay more for less.”

Bingo! And right on cue, Carpenter’s report echoed Edwards:

“The health plan and prescription drug plan policy changes…will shift more of the costs from the state to the OGB plan member,” it said.

That shift will save the state a minimum of $44.7 million for health plan changes and at least $69 million for prescription drug plan changes in fiscal year 2015, the report said.

“Along with premiums, the major costs incurred for medical services by an OGB plan member will be deductibles, co-payments and coinsurance,” it said. “The new health plan offerings will significantly reduce the cost to OGB, while the OGB members pay more for their medical services.”

Of the total OGB population, 75 percent are currently enrolled in the HMO plan which presently has no deductible for the employee but those members will, effective January 1, be subject to both a deductible and coinsurance whereas most are currently subject only to fixed co-pays.

 

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The Jindal administration has announced plans to jettison 24 more positions at the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) as a cost cutting measure for the cash-strapped agency but is retaining the top two positions and an administrator hired only a month ago.

The effective date of the layoffs is Aug. 15.

The latest cuts will leave only 47 employees when the agency is relocated to the Claiborne Building basement to share office space with the Office of Risk Management. The Claiborne Building also houses the Civil Service Department, the Board of Regents, the Department of Education, the State Land Office and the Division of Administration.

The layoff plan submitted to the Department of Civil Service on June 14, said there was insufficient work to justify all 71 positions.

Affected by layoffs are eight Benefits Analyst positions, three Group Benefits Supervisory spots, one Group Benefits Administrator, seven Administrative Coordinators, an Administrative Assist, two Administrative Supervisors, one IT Application Programmer/Analyst and one Training Development Specialist.

OBG Chief Executive Officer Susan West, one of those being retained, will be making a physical move back into her old offices. She previously worked for ORM before that agency was gutted by Jindal’s grand privatization scheme and she moved over to OGB.

West, who makes $170,000, and Interim Chief Operating Officer Charles Guerra ($107,000) are not affected by the layoff nor is Elis Williams Cazes ($106,000)) was appointed as Group Benefits Administrator on June 23.

Cazes was previously employed by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana which serves as the third party administrator of the OGB Preferred Provider Operation at a cost to the state of $5.50 per month per enrollee, which computes to an amount a little north of $70 million per year.

Her position was created—and the requirements reportedly written especially to her qualifications—as the Medical/Pharmacy Administrator responsible for benefit plan management and vendor performance with the primary responsibility to “continuously monitor medical and pharmacy benefit plans to seek out modification of plans or implementation of new plans that reduce claims costs and provide efficiencies for the state and plan participants,” according to the justification given for retaining her position.

Well, we can certainly see where her position is as indispensable as West’s and Guerra’s.

All this takes place at a time whe OGB’s reserve fund has dwindled from $500 million at the time of the agency’s privatization in January 2013 to about half that amount today. Even more significant, the reserve fund is expected to dip as low as $5 million by 2016, just about the time Jindal leaves town for good.

Completing the trifecta of good news, we also have learned that health benefits for some 200,000 state employees, retirees and dependents will be slashed this year even as premiums increase.

In June, West broke the news to the OGB employees. She erroneously said the 47 remaining employees would be reassigned other duties and some might see pay reductions and that those with seniority could bump junior employees in desired positions. The Civil Service Department, however, said salaries could not be cut and bumping is no longer allowed.

Isn’t it nice to know your agency director knows the procedures?

Employees were told that letters would go out between July 1 and July 15 to those who were being laid off. On July 7, they were told the letters would be delivered by hand on Friday, July 11. None came. On the following Monday (July 14) confusion of the order of the day as Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ruth Johnson sent emails to those affected and instructed them to attend a noon meeting in the OGB board room. Upon entering the board room, each person was handed a packet that informed them that Civil Service had not approved the layoffs.

During the meeting, according to one who was there, West kept repeating, “I get this. I’ve been where you are. I get this. However, there are worse things. It’s not like losing a child. I get this.”

Way to soften the blow, Susan. You might have reminded them that the fighting between Israel and Palestine isn’t so bad because there’s also an Ebola outbreak in Africa or that while you’re losing your home to a hurricane storm surge, some people are having to endure heavy wind damage. Or better yet, take them all to a showing of The Fault in Our Stars. That’ll cheer them up.

“It was the ‘I get this’ and comparison of losing a job to losing a child that infuriated the OGB state employees,” the employee said. “This is the worst thing in their lives right  now, some are battling cancer and working; some have children and grandchildren to feed; some live paycheck to paycheck; some are taking care of the elderly and family; all have bills, rents/mortgages, school tuition, etc.”

But you really can’t blame Susan. She previously worked for ORM and was among those present when ORM Director Bud Thompson broke the privatization news to his employees by standing before them, grinning, as he said, “I still have my job.”

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