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Bill would make state employee healthcare more like private sector coverage

Last year, Florida lawmakers didn’t approve a bill giving all state workers the same contribution for their health coverage.  But Tom Flanigan reports that bill may be more successful this year.

Governor Rick Scott had pushed the idea almost from the moment he took office.  All State of Florida employees would get five thousand dollars a year to help them buy health insurance, whether individual or family coverage.   That concept resurfaced in the House Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Robert Schenck, Republican of Spring Hill.  

“They will get a defined contribution, which means a set amount of money, and then they will be offered a cafeteria-style plan, which means they can use all of that contribution to buy various health care coverages.  They could use more than that if they want to contribute.  They can use less than that and if they use less than that, then they have options of putting it into things like a health savings account or bringing it home in their paycheck.”

Besides being more pricey than it should be, Schenck says state workers’ present health coverage is behind the times.  And his plan is the way the country is moving.  Or should be moving.

“I think there’s a general trend that if we really want people to be healthcare conscious – healthcare responsible – then they need to be given more choices and more control over that, so I view this as not a private-public.  In general this is the way our society should be moving towards healthcare in America.”

Sam Bell with the Florida Pediatric Society says there’s one more benefit lawmakers should consider:

“I’ve got an actuarial report here that shows it will actually save the state money.”

Those savings would amount to about$7,000 a year for every state worker who’s now signed up for family coverage.  Individual health coverage would be closer to $1,000 per employee.  It would be the employees who’d pay the difference if they opted to keep the kind of coverage they have now.  Jacksonville Democrat Mia Jones thinks that’s no bargain.

“Knowing that the bill that you’re presenting is going to require that additional dollars will have to come out of the pockets of the employees, then these are our employees that make the least money, so I would ask you to reconsider that.”

Fellow Democrat Elaine Schwartz of Hollywood even put forth an amendment allowing state workers at the bottom of the wage scale to apply for the federally-subsidized KidCare program.  Something that didn’t sit well with Representative Schenck, the bill’s sponsor.

“So what I’d say to you, Representative Schwartz, is you can either withdraw or I’m going to ask the members to vote down your amendment.  That’s entirely your call, but it’s not friendly and we’ll be voting it down if we vote on it.”

Schwartz’s amendment promptly failed on a party-line vote.  In debate, West Palm Beach Democrat Mark Pafford said health coverage was quickly becoming one of the few decent benefits left to Florida’s beleaguered state workers.

“And I certainly understand and respect the idea that we need to save money in the state, but I would argue we’re already there.  We’re the 50th leanest state and do we really need to take this extra step and use choice as an excuse for limiting the type of health care and quality of care and access to care that I’d argue would occur under this legislation?”

Port St. Lucie Republican Gayle Harrell countered that the new plan could actually wind up putting a few extra dollars into employees’ pockets.

“If you have a health savings account, and you have additional funds that you have not consumed over the years, you can actually take with you.  It’s your money.”

And Ocala’s Dennis Baxley insisted state workers will be far more savvy and frugal health care consumers if they have more figurative “skin in the game”.

“I’ve been in emergency room treatment before, went through the whole process, went home…I didn’t know for months even what the bill was.  Had no clue!  How could I be in charge of that purchase of my own health when I had no information?”

And Haines City Republican John Ward cited the words of a consultant the state had called in to evaluate the existing employee health care set-up:

“The state’s current approach to its health plan is best described as paternalistic, whereby the state serves as the architect/custodian of the plan, providing generous benefits and allowing employees to be passive…and perhaps even entitled.”

So the bill changing the health care situation for Florida’s state workers passed the committee on a party-line vote.  In the event the proposal makes it through the entire legislature, the plan’s details would be worked out by an independent benefits consultant, hired to help the Department of Management Services put the plan into effect.  The senate’s leadership has also expressed interest in this kind of health care change for state employees.

Follow @flanigan_tom

Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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