AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia teachers, employees, carrying big load on health care, study finds

A new Department of Community Health study tells 650,000 teachers, state employees and retirees something they'd probably already guessed: that their medical coverage cost them more than workers covered by similar government programs in Georgia and nearby states.

The report, requested by state lawmakers, looked at why the $3 billion State Health Benefit Plan costs so much.

DCH had international consulting group Aon Hewitt study the plan, and it essentially told state employees and teachers that they are paying more in out-of-pocket costs, including payroll deductions, than colleagues in surrounding states and those on the University System's health insurance plan.

The study listed several ways to cut costs for employees, including some that DCH have tried or have talked about.

But it also included this paragraph, "The study showed that Georgia SHBP requires a greater proportion of overall health care cost to be borne by members. In order to improve the Georgia SHBP’s relative position in overall cost share, the Georgia SHBP might consider making the plans offered more affordable through lower employee payroll deduction requirements and/or lower expected OOP (out-of-pocket) costs."

Reducing payroll deduction requirements - how much employees have to pay for premiums - or out-of-pocket costs could, without altering the coverage, mean the state and/or school districts would have to pick up more of the tab. Which is not what the state lawmakers who asked for the study probably wanted to hear.

On the other hand, the study really wasn't news to the teachers and state employees paying the premiums, particularly members of TRAGIC, a group originally formed to fight cutbacks in benefits and a big increase in out-of-pocket expenses.

"This report confirms what the teachers and state employees of TRAGIC have been saying since January, 2014: our insurance options are unaffordable and we pay higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs than comparable plans in other states," said John Palmer, a Cobb County school band director and TRAGIC spokesman. " The question is, what is the Legislature willing to do to help the citizens who work for state of Georgia?"

Aon Hewitt also looked at coverage for non-certified school employees - accountants, bus drivers, etc. It  found that the "employer contributions" - payments by the state or local school districts - are insufficient to fund the coverage.

State budget officials have long said that teachers, state employees and retirees are subsidizing coverage for non-certified employees by paying higher-than-necessary premiums.

Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers pushed about $100 million more of the cost to cover bus drivers and cafeteria workers onto school districts this year, arguing that the state doesn't subsidize health care for part-time government workers. The exception is legislators themselves, who are part-time and yet covered under the State Health Benefit Plan.

Some TRAGIC members are concerned that the next step by Deal and lawmakers will be to force school districts to cover the full cost of health insurance for thousands of non-certified employees. That would cost school districts tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars a year more for health coverage.

Aon Hewitt suggested two ways to bring down the costs for the non-certified employees: force them to pay much more for their coverage, or design a new plan with fewer health benefits.





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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.