When teachers get angry in an election year, both political parties listen. That truism appears to playing out in the battle over who is to blame for problems in the teachers’ health insurance plan — and who can fix it.
The Board of Community Health on Monday will consider major changes to the state’s health care coverage for 650,000 teachers, state employees and retirees and their dependents amid unrest over the state’s controversial decisionto go with a single insurer to manage the plan.
Senate Democrats filed legislation Friday to give those on the plan more choices.
And Gov. Nathan Deal, who faces re-election this year in a campaign dominated by education debate, signaled that he now favors a similar approach. The agency that handles the plan will call on the health board to add HMO managed care features to the plan and reinstate co-payments many teachers and employees preferred, cutting out some big out-of-pocket costs.
Both sides are reacting to mounting criticism from teachers, employees and retirees who have complained about higher out-of-pocket costs and fewer health care options since Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia took over the plan Jan. 1.
Blue Cross officials said they are merely implementing the plan drawn up by the Department of Community Health. State officials originally said the plan would save $200 million this year, but the changes the board will likely make Monday will cut those savings in half.
DCH’s decision to award the contract to a sole manager, Blue Cross, triggered lawsuits and heated accusations that the agency engaged in “state-sponsored bid rigging.” At least initially, Deal seemed willing to ride out the legal battle.
But no governor running for re-election can ignore 100,000 outraged teachers and their families. Most politicians remember that teachers helped defeat Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002 after he angered them with his school reform crusade.
The frustration from teachers seems to be gaining steam. A Facebook page for Georgia teachers to share their experience and counsel about the new plans has attracted more than 10,000 members since it launched Jan. 2. And teachers flooded Deal’s office with complaints about the switch.
Georgia School Superintendent John Barge, who is running against Deal, called for an independent investigation into the insurance switch. Barge, whose family is covered by the plan, said he wants to ensure the process was fair.
“It is unacceptable that we have such a large group and have such poor insurance coverage,” Barge said on his campaign website. “It looks to me like the corrupt way in which our state government is being run is making the lives of a very few better at the cost of everyone else in the state. This must end!”
Deal responded that Barge was trying to exploit problems that teachers and employees are facing with the new plan to win votes, which he called a hollow “political shot.” He also contended the higher costs are linked to the Affordable Care Act. But he conceded changes to the insurance plans were essential and said an announcement is forthcoming.
“It would be nice and I wish that we did have more than one provider available at this point in time,” he said. “And we’ll work to make sure we did have more than one provider available at this point in time. We’ll work to make sure that does occur in the future.”
Democrats sense a campaign cudgel. State Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta, said she’s infuriated when “Republicans blame a decision we make at the state level on our president or Obamacare.” Her party is pushing to force the state to build in multiple insurance options into the state plans.
Debate on the issue erupted on the Senate floor Friday, even though no bill on the subject was being taken up.
“You’ve got teachers out in the field trying to do their work for their children, for our children, for the future of our state, and we’re not responding to their needs and their actual concerns, that’s not right,” said Sen. Jason Carter, an Atlanta Democrat who is running against Deal and whose wife is a teacher.
The governor declined to say what he’s exploring, but a Republican lawmaker released parts of the plan on his website late Friday. It calls for replacing some big out-of-pocket expenses with smaller copayments for office visits and pharmacy services. The copayments would also apply to rehabilitation and emergency room visits.
Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher group, was happy to see some movement on the issue.
“This being an election year, it seems that educators’ voices are being heard with regard to how the changes in the SHBP are affecting them and their families,” he said. “We hope that policy makers, particularly the governor and the Department of Community Health, will continue to listen and respond affirmatively to the very legitimate concerns that are being raised.”
Ashley Cline, whose husband is a high school science teacher in Cherokee County, started the Facebook page, which is called Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes, or TRAGIC. She said she was floored by the response.
“At least we’re going in the right direction,” she said. “Actions speak louder than words. They really actually need to do something, and hopefully this never happens again.”