Editor’s note: State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) sparred verbally with Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols and Office of Group Benefits (OGB) CEO Susan West at the Sept. 25 hearing by the House Appropriations Committee on proposed coverage plans for OGB members. Edwards, the minority leader of the House and Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is an announced candidate for governor in 2015. He wrote the following piece in an effort to display his frustration over his inability to obtain definitive answers or public documents and records from the administration—and to explain how the administration, as a matter of routine, conceals information from legislators.
By State Rep. John Bel Edwards
At a committee meeting convened last month to address the fiscal “emergency,” at the Office of Group Benefits, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols testified that the premium reductions in 2013 and 2014 that drained OGB’s $500 million fund balance were fiscally sound.
At that hearing, I repeatedly asked if OGB’s actuary – Buck Consultants – had recommended those premium reductions and if they recommended reducing the fund balance. Nichols and an OGB CEO Susan West repeatedly refused to answer. I, along with other legislators at the hearing, asked for copies of Buck Consultants’ recommendations.
Weeks later and I’m still waiting for those reports.
What I do have is an email from Buck Consultants to the OGB CEO that clearly states: “We did not recommend a decrease of 7% effective August 1, 2012, or an additional decrease of 1.77% effective August 1, 2013. Further, we were not asked to provide any recommended rate adjustments for any fiscal years beyond what we provided for Fiscal Year 2012/2013.”
Of course the actuary did not recommend cutting premiums by almost 9 % while health care costs are rising by 6% a year. The consultants knew that would be irresponsible and cause claims payments to greatly exceed premium revenue and drain OGB’s fund balance.
Clearly, the OGB premium reductions that ran the fund balance into the ditch were not actuarially driven. Those premium reductions were driven by the Jindal administration’s desire to spend OGB’s fund balance elsewhere in the budget. When OGB reduced premiums, 75% of the savings went to the state and the Jindal administration was able to spend that money wherever they wanted.
Now that the fund balance is drained and still hemorrhaging at the rate of $16 million a month, the Jindal administration called this self-inflicted wound an “emergency” and proposed raising costs to OGB members – those working and those retired – by $189 million. These higher out-of-pocket expenses will not be shared by the state.
Our state workers, school teachers, support workers, and university staff and faculty and retirees cannot afford this. They do not deserve this. About 25,000 of our retired OGB members are not eligible for Medicare, and many active OGB members bring home as little as $700 per month.
I asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion about the legality of Jindal’s effort to unilaterally impose new plans with the exorbitant out of pocket cost increases on workers and retirees. The attorney general’s opinion shows Jindal failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act.
This entire debacle has thankfully been slowed down to ensure public notice, public input and legislative oversight as legally required. It is critically important that the administration act in good faith and genuinely consider the testimony and the plight of affected OGB members as well as its own culpability in needlessly causing the “emergency.”
The Jindal administration must honestly answer subsequent inquiries from the public and from legislators and seek ways to lessen the impact to OGB members. The administration must ditch the ill-conceived plan changes and start from scratch with a willingness to increase premiums reasonably and share in the costs of restoring the soundness of OGB.
The recently discovered $178.5M surplus provides the means to both shore up the fund balance and reduce the cost increases on OGB members. The illegal cost increase forced on OGB members in August must be refunded without forcing members to formally request or sue for the refund.
The legislature must finally assert itself as an independent and equal branch of government to provide exactly the kind of check and balance on the Jindal administration provided by the Louisiana Constitution and demanded by the people of Louisiana. We now have this opportunity as there will be legislative oversight hearings on both the emergency and ordinary rules. We must rise to the occasion.