Solving the PEIA Riddle Is Vital

Pay is only part of the problem, in the minds of many public school teachers in West Virginia. To them, PEIA is the very dirtiest of the dirty four-letter words.

At two strokes, Gov. Jim Justice has both pacified some teachers and made matters worse regarding the Public Employees Insurance Agency. The PEIA provides health insurance for teachers and other state employees.

On the salary front, the governor’s plan for a 1-percent raise this year and additional 1-percent boosts during the next few years isn’t going over well.

Here’s the thing: That’s a matter of revenue — money going out of state coffers and into teachers’ pockets. What about the other side of the equation, which involves the PEIA?

Many PEIA enrollees were scheduled to pay higher premiums this year. But on Friday, Justice came up with a plan to hold increases down for thousands of enrollees.

That will make them happy. But the catch is that health insurance costs money. Someone has to cover the bottom line. Justice’s plan will make it more difficult for the PEIA to do that.

If a way could be found to reduce what it costs the PEIA to provide health insurance, teachers would benefit and it wouldn’t cost the state a dime.

PEIA officials had an idea, called Go365. It is — or was — a program encouraging PEIA enrollees to improve their lifestyles. Points were to be awarded based on achieving certain goals such as participating in exercise programs, having health and dental screenings, etc. The incentive was to be that if PEIA enrollees didn’t sign up, their health insurance premiums would reflect $300 a year penalties.

Some teachers told me and, more important, their legislators, they considered the program an invasion of privacy because of personal information that would be collected.

Go365 was intended to hold down the PEIA’s costs — and thus insurance premiums — by encouraging enrollees to do things that would make them less prone to illness and injury.

But this week, Justice bowed to pressure and “recommended” the program be made entirely voluntary. PEIA officials are going along with him. There will be no $300 a year penalties for not participating.

What is interesting about the governor’s decision to kill Go365 and cancel some planned premium hikes, thus making it more difficult to control PEIA costs, is what he and his aides noted in budget documents sent to legislators.

“… PEIA’s outlook continues to be a major concern and represents another of the major financial challenges facing West Virginia,” states one report. Note use of the word “major.”

Taxpayers already bear an enormous burden in supporting the PEIA, which is far from self-sufficient with premiums paid by enrollees. The last figure I’ve seen was that the PEIA was costing West Virginia taxpayers $422 million a year. That’s in the context of a general revenue budget that has hovered around $4 billion.

So, as another budget document from the governor emphasized, “PEIA cannot assume the economic conditions of the state will continue to permit” increased taxpayer support.

Which is just what PEIA officials may have been thinking when they tried to control costs through Go365.

I can sympathize with concerns expressed by some teachers that the program’s data collection aspects were invasions of their privacy. But many heath insurance programs in the private sector incentivize wellness programs to hold premiums down.

Surely there’s a way for the PEIA to put some sort of wellness program in place without risking the wrath of teachers, the governor and legislators. Perhaps rephrasing things — not calling the $300 a penalty but turning it around to remind teachers involvement in something like Go365 will save them $300 in premiums. And surely something that’s less intrusive can be put together.

The PEIA’s costs simply have to be gotten under control. Taxpayers can’t afford continually increasing subsidies. Teachers can’t afford more and more premium hikes and benefit cuts.

Something has to give.

Myer can be reached at: