N.C. lawmakers try new fix for State Health Plan

Posted April 19, 2011 5:35 p.m. EDT
Updated April 19, 2011 6:16 p.m. EDT

 Ashley Bowman, a Forsyth county resident is looking for a new kidney after numerous life setbacks. Bowman is on the transplant list and in full-time dialysis. Despite what she's facing, she was determined to fulfill her dream.

— State lawmakers are trying again to pass a State Health Plan fix that might win Gov. Bev Perdue’s approval.

The health plan, which serves about 667,000 state workers, teachers, retirees and their dependents, has been financially troubled for years. It was expected to face a shortfall of more than $500 million over the next two years if lawmakers didn’t make some big changes to the plan.

Legislators’ last attempt, Senate Bill 265, would have cut benefits, raised co-pays and deductibles and charged workers a premium for the first time ever. The price would have been about $11 a month for the basic plan, or $22 a month for better coverage.

The proposal also cut out controversial “wellness” rules that set higher rates for smokers and obese people.

Last week, Perdue vetoed that measure, calling it “a tax on teachers” who haven’t had a pay raise in years and who are already among the lowest-paid in the country. She said teachers and employees should have had more input in the bill.

After discussions with teachers, Republicans on Tuesday unveiled Senate Bill 323. It’s the same bill they sent Perdue last week, with one added line: “In setting premium rates, the Treasurer shall strive to maintain low premiums by finding savings in the operation of the Plan.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Dockham, R-Davidson, said he wasn’t sure whether the change would be enough to win Perdue’s approval. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”

House Democrats don’t think so. “You’re plowing the same ground essentially that you have before,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, “and the results are probably going to be the same.”

Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, agreed. “You’re making this committee and this legislature spin its wheels,” he said. “It essentially is a pay cut for state employees and teachers.”

The North Carolina Association of Educators, which represents about 60,000 teachers statewide, does not support the new version. NCAE lobbyist Brian Lewis asked lawmakers to offer workers the option of free basic coverage or better coverage at a price. “We could pay for that by keeping the smoking cessation” incentive, Lewis said.

Democrats argued that ongoing negotiations over the premiums should be allowed to continue. But Republicans said changes need to be made by Friday to allow the plan to start its enrollment period on time.

The measure passed the House on its first vote, 61-54, largely along party lines. Its final House vote is scheduled for Wednesday. If it passes one Senate vote the same day, it could be on Perdue’s desk Wednesday afternoon.

Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson wouldn’t say what the governor would do with the new measure.

"We understand the House will introduce a version tomorrow that includes a no-cost option for teachers and state employees," Pearson said in a emailed statement. “The governor will wait until all the negotiations are over to see what solution is reached.”

“She is glad to see what looks to be positive movement, though,” Pearson added.