Really Fixing PEIA in W.Va.

It is virtually inevitable in government that when a problem comes up, the knee-jerk reaction is to increase taxes. Hey, it will go away if we throw enough money at it … right?

Wrong, in the case of the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency. The PEIA is a chronic malady, at which we can throw money now, then again and again in the future.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice established a task force to recommend solutions to PEIA’s financial woes. Members of the group held public meetings throughout the state, sought data on the agency’s finances, and eventually are supposed to suggest how the Legislature should deal with the PEIA.

In a nutshell, the situation is this: About 233,000 people, including government employees, retirees and their families, rely on the PEIA for health insurance. They pay premiums, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of insurance. Taxpayers kick in around $400 million a year — perhaps much more — to subsidize the agency.

PEIA enrollees have complained for years about increasing premiums, limits on coverage and initiatives such as a “wellness” campaign intended to reduce insurance claims. The issue was a key one in the work stoppage earlier this year by public school employees. “Fix the PEIA” was and is the demand.

Before the governor’s task force can report back to him, it needs information on public opinion about the PEIA. In what probably is a harbinger regarding panel’s final report, members of the Public Outreach Subcommittee cannot seem to agree on what to tell the full task force.

At issue is whether the subcommittee report should simply regurgitate what was said at the public meetings or provide a list of recommendations.

This is one of those “just the facts” times. Subcommittee members should simply distill public comments, not make suggestions on how to proceed. That is the full task force’s job.

There were no surprises from the public meetings, attended primarily by PEIA enrollees interested in holding down their premiums and avoiding limits on benefits. And, as has been pointed out, relatively few people — a total of 1,528 at 21 gatherings — attended the meetings.

Comments focused on contentions PEIA coverage is too expensive, the agency’s “health lifestyles” initiative is too burdensome — and more money ought to be pumped into the insurance program. Suggestions included higher taxes on soft drinks and increasing the state severance tax.

What is missing? You guessed it: Any talk about controlling PEIA expenses to hold down state subsidies. As usual, the focus is on throwing more money at the problem.

That needs to change before recommendations are submitted to the governor. Finding new ways to dump the problem on taxpayers is no solution at all.

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