SADOW: Posturing And Bloviating On State Employee Benefits

If nothing else, emulating Pres. Barack Obama, you can count on Louisiana’s legislators to identify something as a “problem” that they created themselves, then disclaim any responsibility for it, as we see in the instance of needed changes to the benefits system of state employees and retirees (and some school board employees).

In his six years, repeatedly Obama has implemented policies that create or exacerbate a problem and proceeds to blame anybody who did not assist him in that problem’s creation for it. He raised taxes and wildly increased deficit spending to engineer the most simpering economic recovery on record; he made disability payments and unemployment compensation easier to get to bring the country’s workforce participation rate to the lowest in almost 40 years; his health care insurance policies have sent costs escalating without any positive impact on outcomes. And we have the Louisiana Legislature acting much the same as it looks to convene a gripe session over what it did to itself.

This concerns plans of the Office of Group Benefits to restructure benefits provisions for health insurance. While some clients will end up paying less overall, in the aggregate insured persons likely will faceincreased health care costs – even as their rates are about four percent lower than they were two years ago and their plans provide benefits much in excess of typical policies for rates significantly below that paid in then individual market and often better than in the group market as a whole.

Because of that lowering of costs to ratepayers, this drained the reserve fund, which had carried an artificially high amount of idle taxpayer dollars, to a more realistic level but that unless rates were raised – those being pressured upwards by the inefficiencies spawned by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – or benefits altered through more efficient delivery and/or changing their pricings this trend would drop the fund below recommended actuarial levels. The Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration chose the latter option, which is appropriate in that employees/retirees should pay closer to their fair share for underpriced and generous benefits to the relief of taxpayers.

Naturally, this has caused heartburn among legislators, who do their best to avoid hard choices for which they must take responsibility, hence the calling of a gripe session later this month about these changes. This is an attempt to deflect the responsibility they have for these changes, by their approval of the budgets that built in lowering of the premiums that, in the face of rising costs, not only got the reserve down to industry levels but also could not keep up with these accelerating prices. By doing so, they saved $44 million over the two years reductions have been in effect for use in other areas of the budget because as premiums went down, so did the state’s generous (usually triple the ratepayer’s premium) share it needed to pay. For example, while the guy most responsible for getting the spleen-venting session together as an extension of his gubernatorial campaign, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, voted against this year’s budget, he voted forlast year’s when the premium reductions first came about.

But some legislators have taken hypocrisy to new heights on this issue, such as state Rep. Joe Harrison when he asserts that “poor management” has caused this, and this somehow is connected to privatization of administering benefits. What he means remains a mystery to the rest of the world. So is he trying to say that the privatization, which by itself saved millions by getting rid of bloated bureaucracy, combined with the estimated savings of $114 million by administrative actions already taken and others implemented for the next plan year is “poor management?”

Of course, Harrison is an expert on financial mismanagement, as verified by his now being scrutinized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for billing taxpayers for campaign and personal expenses. Or perhaps since, according to his own explanations for charging his campaign so much for travel expenses, he makes round trips from one end to the other of his district at least once a day, he spends too much time driving and not enough paying attention to his legislative duties (and probably stops along the way to commiserate with this other frequent politician driver), and thereby doesn’t perhaps have the best handle on what’s going on in state government.

At least another moaner, state Rep. Cameron Henry, doesn’t have that kind of baggage. Still, he may benefit from adhering to the old aphorism, when he complains about how OGB is “fiscally unsound,” that he who lives in a glass house better not throw stones. If he believes what he says, then he has had a hand in promoting that by his approval of the 2013 budget, and the guy he ought to be criticizing looks back at him in the mirror. And certainly none of him, Harrison, nor Edwards, indeed no legislator, ever spoke against cutting premiums in any public forum.

But you get the picture: it’s all about politics. It’s the same attitude a number of legislators have on fiscal issues in general. So keep in mind when criticism of this nature gets eagerly hurled about on Sep. 25 that it’s only typical behavior of these squeaky wheels who, by the creation by their own hands of what they consider problems they then criticize, demonstrate they’re more interested getting the grease of headlines to puff up their electoral images than in any real commitment to making good policy concerning this issue.



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