Posted on February 2, 2018
By Samantha J. Gross, Lowell Sun – Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — After an upsurge of criticism surrounded its decision to cut health-care plans for state employees, the Group Insurance Commission voted 12-2 Thursday to take a new approach.
At the meeting in the Transportation Building, the GIC voted to set forth a new plan that made six commercial and four Medicare carriers available to members, as opposed to the previously decided-upon three commercial and two Medicare carriers. The open enrollment period for the larger group of insurers begins in early April.
Commissioners Tamara Davis and Christine Clinard voted against the motion, citing money-saving reasons.
The original Jan. 18 decision came after a months-long process that began last summer, and included surveys and a statewide listening tour in the fall to collect responses. The decision made then was to get rid of Tufts Health Plan, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Fallon Community Health, plans that affect 200,000 state employees, retirees and their families.
GIC officials previously said that their original goal was to consolidate insurers and lessen costs for enrollees, the Statehouse News Service reported. The GIC estimated then that it would save $20.8 million in the first year, fiscal year 2019, as a result of the changes. The option the commission voted on Thursday saves just $1 million in the first year.
“This is not about strategy or intention,” said Roberta Herman, GIC executive director. “It’s about the reality of our infrastructure.”
Tim Sullivan, who holds the Massachusetts Teachers Association slot on the GIC board, said the focus will now shift to figuring out design for the plans and communicating changes with members.
In response to the original decision, Sen. Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington, filed legislation Jan. 25 that would require the GIC to wait 90 days after notifying the Legislature to make any agreements or changes in the contract. The window is meant to enable the Legislature to question the GIC about specific decisions and ramifications.
“We need to re-look at how we do this, not only for the protection of the members but for the protection of the commonwealth,” Friedman said. “We need to understand that and not be making these decisions in vacuums.”
Herman appeared before the Senate at an oversight hearing Wednesday, where she told lawmakers that she holds herself responsible for the “unintended” concern and chaos that happened.
In testimony at the hearing, SEIU Local 509 President Peter MacKinnon urged the Senate to support Friedman’s bill because of the positive effect it could have on state employees. Local 509 represents human service workers and educators, 8,300 of whom would be affected by the GIC’s original decision.
In his testimony, he told the story of two mothers — one Department of Children and Families social worker, one SNAP case manager — who have children with disabilities that require care from hospitals that don’t accept insurance from the three plans left remaining by the GIC.
“Continually passing the financial burden onto the backs of state employees is more than unfair,” MacKinnon said. “It’s unjust.”
At the hearing, Ways and Means Committee Chair Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, spoke on the GIC’s initial decision, saying that it “has generated more outrage and consternation from constituents than any issue I can remember over the last, literally, many years.”
Friedman’s reaction bill had 34 Senate co-sponsors, including area Democratic Sens. Eileen Donoghue of Lowell, Michael Barrett of Lexington, Jamie Eldridge of Acton and Barbara L’Italien of Andover.
L’Italien said that while she is glad the GIC is restoring people’s options after hearing feedback at all levels, she hopes that in the future, the GIC will not “make decisions and announce them” and instead “put up a proposed plan and vet it first.”
The senator was especially concerned with cities and towns like Dracut and Lowell, that opted in on Dec. 1 before knowing this change would have taken place.
“It was a rushed decision and didn’t consider the impact of families,” she said. “I’m sure that they will now be in a scramble to figure out how they make this work.”
Eldridge, who once authored a bill to create a single-payer health-care system for the commonwealth, said he hopes the final version of the state budget will provide financial support to the GIC so they don’t “feel as much pressure” within their own budget.
“They’re cutting costs, cutting benefits, raising co-pays and premiums,” Eldridge said. “That’s the opposite direction Massachusetts should be going in.”
Donoghue said she hopes the GIC heard the “deep disappointment” that came from Massachusetts residents, other senators and Donoghue herself.
Friedman said she will work to get the bill passed to protect state employees from future confusion and scare that came from an abrupt decision by the GIC.
“The fact that the GIC is so quickly reversing its position is a testament to the awesome effort of thousands of affected individuals across the commonwealth who spoke up and made their voices heard,” Friedman said in a statement.
Original article retrieved from Lowell Sun.