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Lawmakers try again on State Health Plan

Posted April 28, 2011 5:22 p.m. EDT
Updated April 29, 2011 7:25 a.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 yet again to find middle ground on the State Health Plan.

The plan, which serves more than 660,000 state employees, teachers, retirees and dependents, has been in financial trouble for years. It’s projected to be more than $500 million in the red by the end of the next two-year budget cycle unless lawmakers make changes to it.

Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed an earlier proposal that would have required plan members to pay premiums for their own coverage for the first time. She called it “a tax on teachers.”

Last week, House lawmakers passed a compromise measure they were told Perdue would sign. It offers basic coverage at no cost to active workers and retirees. The state also would pay $127 million into the plan over the next two years to firm up its finances. The rest of the deficit would be covered by the premiums and benefit cuts.

But the Senate refused to accept the House measure, insisting that lawmakers stick to the initial plan of paying about $115 million into the plan.

"Our folks are pretty well dug in," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. "We've allocated all the monies to the State Health Plan that we're going to at this point.”

The latest Senate bid actually costs the state slightly less than the version Perdue vetoed. The premiums are back, though they’re slightly lower for people on Medicaid, and co-pays for generic drugs would rise from $10 to $12.

The measure also instructs the plan's new manager, the state treasurer, to try to find a way to offer workers a no-premium option by 2013.

The cost to the state for the next two years would be $114.3 million.

The Senate approved its proposal Thursday, but leaders said they didn’t know whether the governor would sign it.

“I have spoken to the governor and 80 percent of her staff,” Apodaca said, “and I honestly can’t tell you anything more than I did before I talked to her.”

“I hope she’ll do what’s right and sign this bill, but goodness gracious, I’m not in a position to tell you anything,” he added.

Senate Democrats said Perdue wanted a free basic option for active workers and teachers, like the one offered to retirees. But Republicans said the House “signed off” on the compromise.

“I think we all might wish that we could have it free for state workers and retirees,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. “The problem is, folks, we’re in this hole because it has been free. Nowhere else in the free world would you get this plan for free.”

Tillman said he expects the governor will sign it. “Basically, we took her suggestion to start with,” he said.

The House decided not to take up the measure Thursday. A staffer for Speaker Thom Tillis said they’d had “no assurance” the governor would sign it. They’re scheduled to vote on it Monday night.

Legislators are running up against a deadline on the bill. Republican leaders said Health Plan director Jack Walker told them the changes must be approved in the next few days if they’re to be put into effect for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

Asked for comment on the Senate bill, Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson replied by email, “We’re watching the legislation closely and hoping to reach the best possible result for teachers, state employees and retirees.”