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PEIA bill heading to House floor

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

CHARLESTON -- A House bill that would cap state subsidies of Public Employees Insurance Agency employee premium payments and bar employees hired after July 1 from using unused sick leave for insurance payments appears to be headed for a heated debate on the floor.

Currently, the state pays 94 percent of premiums for single employees covered by the agency, and an average of 90 percent for all subscribers. More than 200,000 state, county and municipal employees are covered by the program. A bill that passed from the Senate and is scheduled for a House vote today would cap the premium subsidy at a maximum of 80 percent for single coverage and 75 percent for family coverage.

Opponents of the bill, including representatives of the AFL-CIO, the West Virginia Federation of Teachers, the Communication Workers of America and the West Virginia Education Association, conducted a press conference Tuesday that was attended by several delegates. Teacher's union representatives said the bill would make it harder for the state to attract qualified teachers.

"I believe the future of public education is at stake here," said Judy Hale, president of WVFT. "Teacher salaries have fallen from 37th to 39th in the nation. In terms of relative value, PEIA is not competitive with contiguous states."

Hale cited a substitute teacher shortage and a projected teacher shortage due to retirements as the reason she believes the bill would damage public education.

Elaine Harris of the Communication Workers of America didn't care for the sick leave provision.

"It would create a new class of employees who do the same work but receive less in benefits," Harris said.

When asked what solution he would offer, WVEA President Tom Lange said the parties involved should work together to make health care more affordable and accessible.

"We can't get the medical and pharmaceutical to the table to deal with the issue of affordable health care. We want to be part of the solution," Lange added. He also said legislators are quickly pushing the bill in an effort to "ram it down our throats."

Del. Larry Linch, D-Harrison, who is affiliated with AFL-CIO, said he also believe state employees did not have a fair opportunity to have input on the bill.

"Our position is that the legislation was put together behind closed doors," Linch said. "I'm concerned about the teachers. But more than the teachers, I'm concerned about other state and county employees who are at poverty wages. This could be really detrimental to them."

Del. Barbara Warner, D-Harrison, said she believes the bill is a good compromise that is necessary to keep the agency solvent as well as protecting the interests of the 1.8 million state residents who support the program with their tax dollars.

"There has to be a compromise," Warner said. "If we don't make the program solvent, we'll run into the same problem we had in 1989 and 1990, when doctors stopped accepting PEIA.

"What about all the other people out there?" Warner asked. "Sometimes you have to do the right thing, not what's popular with a special interest group."

While time is running short, Del. Barbara Fleishauer, D-Monongalia, said she hopes legislators will be able to reach a compromise with teachers and other state employees.

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