LouisianaVoice has not posted a story on last Thursday’s House Appropriations Committee hearings on the Office of Group Benefits because we did not want to do what the mainstream media under the pressure of a deadline must necessarily do: get the story out quickly and without going into a lot of detail—in short, an overview.
This is not a criticism but simply an observation of the nature of the job. Reporters must report the highlights of such lengthy hearings without going into too much detail. Both time and newspaper space (air time for TV news) dictate this.
We are not bound by such constrictions. Nor are we always tied down to deadlines. While the story is important, we would rather review the entire seven hours of testimony and give you the mood of the hearings, both the adversarial sparks and the heart-wrenching emotion of some of those who gave their testimony.
Accordingly, we will offer two installments on the hearing. The first will concentrate on the testimony of state employees and retirees who will be adversely affected if the proposed plans are implemented, with retirees taking the hardest hits. The second installment will relate the exchanges between the administration representatives and members of the legislature, most of whom ignored the warnings of three years ago when the administration first proposed firing about 150 OGB employees and hiring a third party administrator (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana) and now must deal with the consequences of an angry constituency.
The hearing was one of repeated confrontation between legislators and the administration, and while both sides attempted to adhere to legislative protocol and professionalism, there were times when each side’s contempt for the other surfaced, albeit briefly. But it was sufficient for observers to see that members of the legislature, after six and one-half long years, have finally reached a point that they no longer trusts or have any real patience with the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana).
In 2011 then-Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater said the state did not need to be in the insurance business but now, a short three years later, the administration has embedded itself in the day to day operations of the Office of Group Benefits, even to the point of bringing in two former BCBS executives to assist CEO Susan West in finding her bearings.
The following year, in 2012, Jindal attempted to “reform” state employee pensions. Our best example of what those reforms would have done, a story we’ve told several times now, is the one of the state employee who planned to retire after 30 years. If she never received another raise before her retirement, her pension, under the current retirement plan, would be $39,000 per year. Under Jindal’s plan, her retirement would have been slashed to $6,000 per year—a $33,000 per year hit—with no social security.
The courts ruled his retirement plan unconstitutional, so now he’s coming after health care benefits.
Rainwater’s successor, Kristy Kreme Nichols and West (the third or fourth CEO since the administration fired Tommy Teague—to tell you the truth, we’ve lost track) alternated in dodging questions, fumbling explanations and being generally unsuccessful in providing simple yes or no answers in their sparring with legislators. Division of Administration (DOA) Executive Counsel Liz Murrill, meanwhile, spent much her time sitting behind the witness table texting, seemingly oblivious to heartbreaking testimony of those who are seeing their coverage costs skyrocketing.
She texted, for example, while Janice Font, an art teacher from West Baton Rouge Parish, told the committee that she must take eight medications daily and can barely make the co-payments on her prescription drugs now. “And now you tell me I’ve got to pay double?”
Murrill continued texting as Font said she had to take five months disability “making $200 a month less than my house note” and how she “can’t even call the company to fix my air conditioning.”
The texting continued as Font implored legislators to explain to her what she had done to deserve such treatment. “I am a good teacher. I do a good job. And I’m barely making it. I don’t deserve this. I would like for somebody to come down here and tell me why this is being done to me.”
Henry Reed, a retired State Fire Marshal’s office employee, said he fought FEMA for hurricane recovery money on behalf of the state but has seen little in the way of gratitude on the part of that same state since his retirement. A victim of both epilepsy and narcolepsy, Reed said he has to take one medication that costs $2,000 per one-month supply.
His doctor prescribed two pills per day of that medication. “OGB changed to Medimpact (a San Diego company OGB contracted with in January to pay prescription drug claims) and Medimpact informed me they would pay for only one pill per day. Apparently someone sitting at a desk in California knows more about my condition than my doctor.
“I thought I had a good health plan,” Reed said. “I called OGB and they referred me to Medimpact.”
Roy Clement is retired from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “I’m being asked to choose between plans that will decrease my benefits while increasing my costs,” he said. “In 2011 Paul Rainwater came before the committee and said OGB funds would not be directed to other programs after privatization. But if you cut premiums, the funds that were not earned (the state’s 75 percent contribution to premiums) go someplace else.
“Tommy Teague was forced out after he had more than $500 million (in the OGB trust fund). Now the fund is going broke.
“Our mandate at DEQ was to help the people of Louisiana,” he said. “Yet we’ve seen an administration plunder every agency for their use.”
Kay Prince, a retired school teacher from Ruston, said she and her husband “chose to work for the state because of good retirement and excellent benefits. Now that we’re older and not in as good health as when we were younger, we need these benefits and we feel we are not being treated as fairly by the state as we treated the state by giving of ourselves everything we had. This is not a good situation. OGB was a wonderful thing and that was what largely influenced us in our decision to remain in Louisiana.”
Vicky Picou said simply, “If you need one of these (proposed) plans, you can’t afford it. Most increases are loaded heavily on those least able to pay.
“It’s not open access if the costs are more than your monthly income. This administration has found deep pockets to subsidize corporations (but) has found nothing but contempt for OGB members who are ill. Under this administration, OGB has seen its CEOs come and go, its workers get terminated and now this administration wants to see its ill and elderly shoved off the OGB plans.”
Neil Carpenter said OGB is not living up to its own philosophy and goals. “Never in my career have I seen half a billion dollars played with so capriciously and arbitrarily,” he said. “I would at least think you would have an actuarial report whereby you could set premiums. From what I’ve seen, they’re based on nothing. There’s no methodology to the madness.” (We will have much more on this in tomorrow’s story.)
“I know the money was not transferred from the reserve fund to the general fund,” he said. “I know that. But if you reduce the amount coming out of the general fund by underfunding premiums that are supposed to be going to the insurance program, you have effectively done the same thing.
“Somehow, we were paying too little to fund the plans and our reserve fund got too big and now we’re broke because we had too much money.”
Ann Curry, a retiree from the Office of Juvenile Justice pointed out that because members from East and West Feliciana parishes are on the Vantage Health plan, they have been going to doctors in Baton Rouge but because of the structure of the new proposals, those members will not be eligible for the less expensive plan because the Baton Rouge doctors will not be in that network. Consequently, they would have to opt for the more expensive plan.
Mary-Patricia Wray, legislative director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the administration’s idea of “right-sizing” the OGB plan really meant right-sizing for the administration. “The right-sizing, according to this plan, means it will be suffered by state workers and teachers only. The costs to the state stay the same. Deductibles, co-pays, out-of-network costs will be going up—way, way up. Whenever the state’s position in right-sized, it comes out on top. The last time it right-sized, it saved $95 million by decreasing premiums. That decision led to financial problems and now the state is being ‘same-sized,’ not right-sized. Members of OGB will bear the burden of that poor decision.”
Frank Jobert, executive director of the Louisiana Retired Employees Association said the administration created the crisis. “This entire conversation today would not be necessary had we not reduced premiums and created the problem that exists today that you’re trying to solve on the backs of employees and retirees.”
Jobert said he had been told some legislators do not want to get involved in the OGB discussion “because they’ll be blamed. But if you don’t get involved, you’re going to share the blame. You’re going to leave some people out in the cold.
“This program was fine,” he said. “It was functioning; we were happy with the premiums and nobody was complaining. Now we’re doing everything in a completely different manner, adding confusion, giving programs new names and no one is happy. We need your help,” he told the legislators. “It’s your job. We elected you to do this for us.”
Tommy Teague, who was fired as executive director of OGB on April 15, 2011, when he failed to embrace Jindal’s privatization plan, was one of the last non-legislator to testify. His firing followed that of his wife Melody six months earlier for testifying before Jindal’s streamlining committee. And though she appealed and got her job back, the firing of the two gave birth to the often used term “teagued” as synonymous with being fired or demoted by Jindal.
Teague now serves as general counsel and Vice President of Provider Relations for the newly formed Louisiana Health Cooperative.
“There was never a rule change undertaken at OGB without going through the Administrative Procedures Act (APA),” he said. “We followed the APA every time there was a change in a benefit plan. We allowed for complete oversight of all changes as the APA called for.”
Legislators, as we will see in tomorrow’s installment, were highly critical of the administration’s reluctance to comply with the APA.
“I do have a business motive for being here,” Teague admitted. “Louisiana Health Cooperative is a new start-up health maintenance organization (HMO).
“OGB is required to seek out any Louisiana HMOs that would like to participate in the state employee health coverage during open enrollment. We asked OGB for an opportunity and they refused to let us participate even though we believe the law requires the solicitation process to include us. We offer a plan very similar to the current HMO plan and could save the state millions of dollars.
“We would encourage the oversight process and that you push back the open enrollment (now scheduled for Oct. 1—Oct. 31) and that we be allowed to participate and offer our plan through the open enrollment process.”
Then, deliberately and emphatically, Teague said, “When I was fired (from OGB) in 2011, the fund balance was $506 million and the Office of Group Benefits was running like a top.”
And Liz Murrill texted.
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