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State workers don’t see health cuts coming

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a deep cut in state workers' health benefits -- $7,000 a year for the most popular family plan -- but most state workers seem unaware of it. 

Health News Florida discovered that while trying to gather opinions about the proposal.

"No ma'am, I haven't heard of that," said Heather Brown, administrative secretary at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Sue Bruce, a personal secretary at the Florida State Courts, said: "I don't know much about what goes on across the state."

"I'm vaguely familiar," said John Tupps, information specialist at the Governor's Office.

On Feb. 7, Scott proposed that the state cap its contribution to employee health insurance at $5,000, whether the worker needs coverage for one person or a family of 10. If it's approved by the Legislature, this will wallop the many state employees who have family plans that cost $14,000 or more a year.

Scott proposed it at the same time he announced he wants to require state workers to contribute 5 percent of their pay to their pension plans and during the same month that he visited state agencies to talk about massive layoffs. Those two subjects captured all the headlines.

So the gravity of the health-insurance cut -- or even the fact that it exists -- did not reach 11 out of 16 state employees HNF called Monday.

"There's probably not a single person in this office who knows anything about this proposal," said Steve Murray, communications director at the Department of Veteran's Affairs. "This just hasn't been a large part of the media coverage coming from Tallahassee."

The proposed cap would not take effect until 2013, is aimed at holding down the state's future health-care costs. During the 2009-10 fiscal year, the state spent nearly $1.8 billion on health benefits for 375,000 workers, retirees and family members.

But the proposal also fits neatly into Scott's political philosophy, in reducing the cost of government and shaping benefits to look more like those in the private sector.

The $5,000 contribution would apply to all -- not just young, single workers, but also to older workers and those with families. Now the state pays an average for family coverage of $12,000 per worker, so the $5,000 cap would save the state $7,000 per employee.

The state pays about $6,000 for each single worker's coverage.

The change may push many employees into high-deductible plans combined with what are known as "health savings accounts,'' in which employees put part of their pre-tax earnings to save for medical needs in the future. Such plans give workers an incentive to shop for bargains in health care -- since whatever they don't spend they can keep. But if employers don't contribute to the savings account, some critics say, workers don't put enough money in to meet real needs.

The state already offers this option, but almost no employees use it.

During the 2009-10 fiscal year, when about 177,000 employees and retirees were in the state insurance system, only 1,334 chose the high-deductible plans with health-savings accounts, according to information presented to a legislative committee.

Those who participate in the high-deductible package receive upfront savings on their premiums. A rank-and-file worker who has single coverage pays $15 a month, compared to $50 a month in the standard insurance plans. A similar employee with family coverage pays $64.30 a month for the high-deductible package, compared to $180 a month for standard coverage.

The proposal mirrors the private sector shift from providing that specific items be covered -- "defined benefit plans" -- to fixed-dollar amounts that employees choose how to spend -- "defined contribution plans."

The downside to these plans, critics say, is that patients can get stuck with high bills if they encounter a serious illness before their savings mount enough to cover them.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders and Editor Carol Gentry contributed to this report. Reporter Brittany Davis, who is based in South Florida, can be reached at 954-495-6766 or Brittany.Davis@HealthNewsFlorida.org