|Berkshire Workers Critical Of GIC Reducing Health Care Options|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
01:40PM / Wednesday, January 24, 2018
|A few dozen local state workers raised objections to the GIC's decision during a public hearing Wednesday morning.|
GIC Executive Director Roberta Herman said many of the companies currently in the program offered very similar options.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — GIC Executive Director Roberta Herman asked how many people get their health insurance through Tufts.
And nearly all of the 50 or so state employees in the audience at the Berkshire Athenaeum on Wednesday morning raised their hands.
Tufts is one of three insurance companies planned to be eliminated as an option for hundreds of thousands of employees throughout the commonwealth.
The Group Insurance Commission, which administers health care coverage to nearly a half-million state and municipal workers, voted to cut its portfolio of options in half — down to Unicare, Neighborhood Health Plan, and Health New England for active workers. That eliminates Tufts, Fallon Health, and Harvard Pilgrim.
"What we have heard again and again is 'we do not want to compromise our health care benefits' and what most people mean by that, we think, is that they do not want to lose access to their doctors and hospitals, they do not want further erosion in their actual coverage, and they also do not want their health care costs to be going up faster than their wages," Herman said.
The GIC was up for procurement and started to consider what would happen if the portfolio was kept the same, reduced by a few, or reduced down to one. What came from that was a recommendation to drop three of the current companies. The commission expects the move would save $20.8 million while still providing coverage to its membership.
Herman said while there currently are six companies, many of the plans offered are very similar.
"It looked to us like we were already able to offer many if not all, members access to comparable coverage at a lower cost," Herman said.
Last Thursday, the commission voted to do that. But there are still two more votes to go as the GIC now focuses on making sure the plans being offered actually achieve those goals.
But for the people in the Berkshires, there is a lot of doubt over whether or not that can happen. A common theme of Wednesday's public hearing was that this change made in Boston will only harm workers in the Berkshires.
The employees here have significant struggles with access as it is and the options for finding plans that meet their needs will be reduced, according to those in attendance. One of the options doesn't have a presence in the Berkshires, dropping local choices down to two.
"You have no idea what it is like for the people of Berkshire County. Time and again they are told that their doctor is not in the plan offered to them. It has happened over and over again to the working families of Berkshire County. Was that taken into account? Were regional differences taken into account when you were making this decision?" state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said.
Farley-Bouvier said this could be "life-changing" for those residents covered through GIC. There are questions on whether the new plans will cover certain doctors, what the prices will be for plans that do cover the limited options out here, and what happens if the new company doesn't cover a worker's doctor.
The Pittsfield Democrat is calling on a full accounting of the process and understanding of what the impacts will be. Those extend to health-care providers, which the Berkshires have long struggled to retain.
"This is how insurance plans drop their prices and save the state money. It is not because the insurance carrier is going to take less money, the CEO is going to make less, the shareholders are going to have less of a return. No. It is they reimburse the providers less," Farley-Bouvier said.
"We have a crisis in this county of primary-care providers, of mental health providers, try to get a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, around here. Even visiting nurses are hard to get around here. Why? People aren't in these professions because insurance carriers are reimbursing less, they are paying less."
Secondly, Farley-Bouvier is calling for a "wholesale change" of the makeup of the GIC board.
"All the board members are appointed by the governor and a minority of the board members represent the working people of Massachusetts," she said. "What the GIC is is an arm of the governor. And Gov. Charlie Baker wants to make a change in the GIC and the GIC follows suit. That is not OK."
A woman from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts said the change significantly hurts the recruitment of staff from nearby Vermont or New York. With the current slate of plan options, there would only be one -- the most expensive -- available for those living outside of Massachusetts.
Emily Herder, an attorney in the public defender's office, said the wages in the local office are below the rest of the state and limitations on insurance even further hurts recruiting, which in turn hurts the representation people get.
"Without a union, we do not have the collective bargaining power. We are not guaranteed step raises. Raises are few and far between," Herder said.
A colleague of Herder said she lives in a nearby state and the change would raise her premiums significantly. Another woman who lives in Northern Berkshires said she drives to Southern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington for treatment because it is closer. She worries the plans offered won't cover her treatment.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier criticizes the way the vote was carried out.
Charlie Cianfarini of MCLA, vice president of the Association of Professional Administrators representing 1,400 or so workers in state universities and colleges, said he looks at his options every year and always goes back to the same one because it made the most sense for his family. But, that is now being eliminated.
"I look at plans every year when decision guides are out and Tufts continues to be the best thing for my family. Everybody has been great and the intention has been to stay with them until retirement at least," Cianfarini said.
"You are not offering enough to the people I represent. I also represent people who live in Vermont, who live in New York, who live in Connecticut, who are not getting anywhere near the same advantage. The only thing available to them is basic."
Elizabeth Recko-Morrison had already made the switch to more expensive Unicare but has been "counting the days" to switch back to Tufts.
"We switched to Unicare because we had grown sons living out of state. The only plan that allowed us to cover them out of state, once they graduated from college, was Unicare," she said. "Now I am stuck with a health plan that I really would hate or to keep paying [for Unicare]."
She wonders why the commission didn't ask workers which companies they valued the best. That lack of public engagement has also become a driver of the controversy.
Farley-Bouvier called the GIC's vote "secretive" and said commissioners weren't given the details of the proposal until the night before the vote -- leaving little time to for review. Only now, after the vote was taken, is GIC holding public hearings. Some have complained on social media that the public hearing notices seem to have gone out at the last minute.
"I'm not sure if I've ever seen such a mishandling of a process," Farley-Bouvier said.
Cianfarini said nobody in the labor world had seen it coming and with Herman saying the process has been under way for a while, he expected that at least somebody would have heard something. As for the public meeting, he said few knew about it ahead of time. Another woman said she had only heard about it just an hour and a half before it started.
"I think it is really disingenuous to have a meeting on Wednesday at 10 o'clock in the morning that affects so many people in Berkshire County," Cianfarini said. "This really wasn't advertised, nobody really knew about it. It is sad that the timing is such."
Herman said the process isn't over yet. She said the organization will be looking at the plans and making sure the options are comparable. The information provided by those in the Berkshires will be helpful when taking the next step on Feb. 1, which is when the products will be presented to the commission.
"We're still two votes away from getting the job done," Herman said.
She added that the commission is going to make sure that nobody loses coverage altogether.
Even so, the reductions of options available have led to a switch response from the workers affected.
"Eliminating health care options, which is all about access, for state workers, who are the backbone of this commonwealth, is disgraceful," said Amy Herman, who works with the Department of Public Health.
On Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the House would be creating a special committee to look at the changes and to be chaired by Majority Leader Ronald Mariano of Quincy.
"I'm deeply concerned about the impact that the proposed changes by the GIC will have on the lives of Massachusetts residents and on our economy," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a statement. "The process has been flawed and the policy is questionable: these changes will be very disruptive, while resulting in ambiguous savings."
Wednesday, 2:46 p.m.: DeLeo's statement added