State Officials Can’t ‘Fix PEIA’

Short of writing a blank check to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, it is impossible for West Virginia legislators to comply with one demand by many public school employees who began a strike last week. In other words, it can’t be done.

Yet a substantial number of the strikers continued to insist on it Wednesday. Their demand is that lawmakers “fix the PEIA.”

That agency provides health insurance to tens of thousands of active and retured state employees, including school personnel. Under a formula agreed to years ago, Mountain State taxpayers cover 80 percent of the cost of premiums. PEIA enrollees pay the remaining 20 percent.

But as the cost of health insurance has increased, the dollar amounts both the state and public employees have paid have gone up steadily. The state’s share appears to be between $450 million and $500 million a year.

In addition, PEIA officials have trimmed some benefits to hold costs down.

When school employees began their strike last week. they listed pay and the PEIA as their chief complaints.

But Gov. Jim Justice and legislators did what they could about the PEIA. They agreed to take $29 million from the emergency Rainy Day Fund to freeze premiums until at least July 2019. They and PEIA officials agreed to kill an unpopular “wellness” program that, ironically enough, had been aimed at holding premiums down.

Yet the “Fix PEIA” demand continues to be heard. What, exactly, does that mean?

Does it mean some of the strikers are demanding an assurance their health insurance premiums will never, ever increase?

There is only one way for state officials to comply with that sort of ultimatum.

The actual cost of health insurance will continue to rise. Hundreds of thousands of West Virginians have no choice but to cope with that.

For the state to freeze premiums permanently, a commitment for taxpayers to fork over whatever it takes to cover the actual cost would be required.

In effect, lawmakers would have to agree to write a blank check, cashable over and over again in the future, for whatever amount of money might be needed.

Justice has issued an executive order establishing a task force, with representatives from public employees on it, to look at what can be done about the PEIA. That is as much as anyone has a reasonable right to expect — and it is all the governor and Legislature can do about the issue.