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State workers’ coverage in play

Senate leaders have scrapped a proposal that rank-and-file state employees feared would force them to pay thousands of dollars a year more for family health insurance.

The Senate Budget Committee on Friday approved a bill that still could require employees to pay more for family coverage --- but far less than a potential $6,000-a-year increase included in the original version of the bill.

Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the revised bill could require employees to pay about $1,100 a year more to maintain current coverage for spouses and children. But he said the bill also would lead to a new menu of benefit options next year, which could offset the increased costs.

"I'm trying to find a way to manage the cost,'' he said.

Alexander said, however, the bill would lead to substantial increases for thousands of appointed employees and lawmakers, who have received low-cost health insurance in recent years. He said those officials would be treated the same as rank-and-file workers.

A single appointee this year pays $100 for coverage, while appointees with families pay $360. By contrast, a single rank-and-file worker pays $600, while those with family coverage pay $2,160.

The revised bill was a relief for Jennifer Morgan-Byrd, a 38-year-old state paralegal, who said the potential $6,000-a-year increase in the original version would have been "devastating.'' Morgan-Byrd said she makes less than $40,000 a year and carries health insurance for her husband and three autistic children.

"Now I see there's a little glimmer of hope,'' Morgan-Byrd told the committee in a rare appearance by a rank-and-file worker.

Alexander has supported providing a set amount of money for each employee's health insurance and requiring workers to make up the rest. But he said the original version of the bill was not what he wanted.

"It would have been very draconian to many state associates' situations,'' he said. "That's why we said, 'Just stop.' ''

The move also drew praise from Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, whose Tallahassee-area district is loaded with state workers.

"This is far, far better and much more humane than what we originally had before,'' Montford said.

It remains unclear whether the Senate proposals will ultimately be approved, as the House has not called for such changes. The House and Senate will each pass their versions of the budget this week, setting up negotiations on a final agreement before the May 6 end of the legislative session.

With lawmakers struggling to fill a nearly $3.8 billion budget deficit, however, they could look to cut costs in the employee health-insurance program. Alexander said the Senate proposal would save about $130 million a year.

Any changes likely would have the largest effect on employees who have family coverage. This year, that coverage costs a total of $14,920, with the state picking up $12,760 and employees paying $2,160, according to information that the Budget Committee received in February from the state Department of Management Services.

Single coverage costs a total of $6,600, with the state paying $6,000 and employees paying $600.

The Senate proposal would increase the amount that employees with family coverage must pay from $2,160 to $2,400, while keeping the individual contribution level at $600.

On top of that, it would start using a new formula to calculate employee and state contributions. That formula would be based on the lowest-cost plan currently available in the insurance program and would require most employees to pay more to maintain current coverage.

While the exact numbers are not spelled out in the bill, Alexander said that would require employees with family coverage to make up about $1,100 and employees with single coverage to make up about $500.

Under the original version of the Senate bill, the state would have provided a flat $6,000 to each employee for insurance --- whether those workers were single or married with children. To continue receiving full coverage, workers with families would have needed to make up a difference of more than $6,000 a year.

Appointed workers and lawmakers, however, would see more-dramatic changes under the bill. If they are required to pay the same as rank-and-file workers, individual annual premiums would go from $100 to $600, and family premiums would increase from $360 to $2,400. Those numbers also would not factor in the new formula that would be used to calculate employee and state contributions.

Appointed officials have argued they should receive low-cost insurance because of changes that former Gov. Jeb Bush made to the state-employment system. Those changes stripped many officials of civil-service protections --- and, in exchange, provided low-cost health insurance to them.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.