Starting on Task of ‘Fixing’ PEIA

Many of the public school teachers on strike Thursday and Friday are as upset about health insurance premiums and benefits as they are regarding salaries. “Fix PEIA” — the Public Employees Insurance Agency — signs were common on the picket lines.

But it can’t be fixed. Trust me on this: Each and every member of the Legislature, along with Gov. Jim Justice, wishes devoutly there was a “fix” for the PEIA.

Here’s a tidbit of which you may not be aware: The PEIA already costs West Virginia taxpayers between $450 million and $500 million a year. That’s more than one-tenth of the entire general revenue budget.

The PEIA is eating us alive.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the frustration of teachers and other public employees who rely on the PEIA. They have seen premiums go up and benefits go down for several years.

So have many of their fellow West Virginians. Premiums have gone up and benefits down for virtually everyone in our state. We’re talking health insurance, after all.

Lawmakers and the governor have done what they could, for now. They’re transferring $29 million out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund — which originally was supposed to be reserved for emergencies — to keep PEIA premiums stable for about 17 months.

That is good news for a lot of people. The PEIA provides health insurance for nearly 170,000 Mountain State residents, including dependents of the public employees who are covered.

There is bad news, of course. It is that health care technology keeps advancing by leaps and bounds — and it keeps getting more and more expensive.

Years ago, public employees concerned about their PEIA bills were placated by an agreement that they would pay 20 percent of the cost of health insurance, with the state picking up the remaining 80 percent. That’s not a bad deal — except that both the 20 and the 80 keep going up in dollars.

Agency officials have tried to hold down costs, in part through a “wellness” initiative for policyholders. Many teachers felt it intruded on their privacy. They hated the idea that if they didn’t participate, they would pay $300 a year in higher premiums.

That plan has been scrapped. The “wellness” program now is purely voluntary. That probably isn’t sustainable.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee has suggested a way out. He wants the Legislature to establish a “task force” including teachers’ union representatives “so we fairly can discuss how to come up with solutions to PEIA.”

“That probably needs to include a funding source,” Lee added.

Well, there already is a funding source — taxpayers. Unless Lee knows the location of that mythical money tree, that’s the only source for more subsidies for the PEIA.

One interesting suggestion was made by a reader who asked me why counties could not be authorized to tack on additional property taxes so they, not the state directly, could pay teachers more and, perhaps, cover part of their PEIA premiums.

That probably would require an amendment to the state constitution. And, again, taxpayers would be the bottom line.

Legislators ought to take Lee up on the task force — providing it looks at ways to control PEIA costs, not just pump more money into the program.

We have to start somewhere.

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Remember the indictments of more than a dozen Russians for meddling in the 2016 presidential election? They are accused of all sorts of shenanigans, many of them using social media. In addition, the Russians, working through “unwitting” U.S. accomplices, organized a few rallies.

Buried near the end of the indictment is a revelation that ought to annoy folks in our region of the country considerably. It is that the Russians “created and purchased Facebook advertisements for a series of rallies they organized in Pennsylvania called Miners for Trump…” The events took place in October 2016.

Careful, Mr. Putin. Ask Hillary Clinton what happens when you annoy coal miners.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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