AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Health care plan for Georgia teachers, state employees heading toward shortfall

The last page of the Department of Community Health's budget presentation Thursday may signal a future political battle over the state's health care program for more than 600,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their families.

It showed the State Health Benefit Plan had a more than $300 million surplus in the recently completed fiscal year, and with lower than expected costs so far in 2015, another big surplus is expected. That's one of the main reasons most teachers and state employees covered by the $3 billion a year plan will see their premiums drop in 2016.

But the good news, it turns out, is only temporary. At the end of the DCH's budget presentation Thursday, the agency's chief financial officer noted that the plan is projected to face a $42 million deficit in 2016-2017, and a $300 million shortfall in 2017-2018.

That likely means more changes ahead for those on a plan that has been under constant scrutiny over the past two years and spawned a teacher protest movement over health coverage.

DCH Commissioner Clyde Reese noted that a recent audit made several suggestions for changes aimed at saving the program money, adding, "it will all be on the table for 2017."

Those decisions would be made in 2016, an election year for all 236 state lawmakers, and possibly 2017, as the next gubernatorial race starts heating up.

TRAGIC, a group formed to fight changes in the state health benefit plan, was formed in 2014 and it provided an election-year social media rallying site for critics of Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers. It also allowed SHBP members to share stories and information, and vent about problems in the system.

The projected deficits could mean higher premiums or benefit changes are on the way.

Or the numbers may improve. The state projected that big shortfalls would hit earlier, but expenses haven't been as bad as originally expected. State officials also forced school districts to kick in an extra $100 million to pay more for insurance for part-time workers like bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

The next clue about the direction the state will take will likely come in January, when Deal releases his budget proposal for the upcoming year. That proposal may include changes to the SHBP.

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About the Author

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