CHARLESTON — Many West Virginia public employees would see more of their paychecks going toward insurance under a premium increase being considered by the Public Employee Insurance Agency.
The PEIA Finance Board will convene at 1 p.m. Thursday at 601 57th St., SE, Charleston, in the Canaan Valley Conference Room to vote on a yearly plan that includes a rate increase for policyholders.
If approved, the increase would go into effect in July.
It is the second increase for PEIA members since the Legislature approved a bill last year to return premiums to an 80/20 employer-employee cost share in order to stave off a $376 million shortfall in the agency. Prior to that, PEIA premiums had not increased since 2019.
PEIA provides coverage for 200,000 state employees, as well as approximately 30,000 local government and non-state workers.
“It’s less money in our paychecks,” said one of those employees, Jacob Fertig, an art teacher at St. Albans High School.
Two different PEIA fund groups, different rate increases
Active employees are categorized into two groups, each with separate PEIA funds. The state fund covers individuals employed by state agencies, state colleges and universities, and county boards of education. The “non-state” fund covers county and municipal governments that use PEIA to offer coverage to their employees.
Employees incur different insurance costs based on their fund. In the first increase earlier this year, the non-state fund increased by 16%, while the state fund increased by roughly 24%. After this latest proposed increase, state employees will see a 10.5% increase while non-state employees will see a 13% jump.
Retired employees are covered under the Retiree Health Benefit Trust. Under the proposed plan, there would be no changes in premiums or benefits for retirees who are eligible for Medicare.
However, the plan includes a 10% premium increase with no changes in benefits for people who are old enough to have retired but are not old enough to be eligible for Medicare.
The increases have also resulted in a spousal charge, so employees whose spouses have other insurance available to them would have to pay out-of-pocket if they choose PEIA over the other options.
The charge was levied on state employees during the first round of increases and is included in the current proposal for non-state employees.
‘Our paychecks aren’t keeping up with that type of an increase’
Last year, the Legislature approved a pay increase for state employees to help offset the cost of the first premium increase. Gov. Jim Justice has proposed another, to be determined during the Legislative session that begins Jan. 10.
Opponents of the rate increases say many employees with PEIA won’t see those raises. Even for those who do receive them, the raises barely cover the cost of the premium hike, said President Fred Albert of the American Federation of Teachers — West Virginia.
“Our paychecks aren’t keeping up with that type of an increase,” Albert said.
On top of that, Albert said, employees are dealing with skyrocketing costs fueled by inflation and often look to neighboring states for better opportunities. The state has consistently struggled to fill teaching positions over the last several years, he said.
Fertig said the systemic problems with the PEIA are one of many contributing factors to the overall poor state of education in West Virginia. Teacher pay and benefits have a direct impact on the quality of education provided to students.
In addition to working as a full-time teacher for the past 10 years, Fertig has worked as a substitute and with afterschool programs on Charleston’s West Side. He emphasized an interconnectivity to the problems facing West Virginia, all pointing to a lack of funding for critical services.
In education, the staffing shortage has reached crisis levels, Fertig said. Similar personnel problems abound in other state agencies, including corrections and child protective services.
“The primary way that you create incentives is through pay and benefits,” Fertig said. “You’re not going to get that by cutting pay and benefits every year.”
The most recent figures show that more than 1,500 teaching positions are filled with instructors who are not traditionally certified.
The Legislature seems increasingly disinterested in solving the problem, Fertig said, instead opting to “remove themselves” from the business of education. Calls for a permanent funding solution, such as a tax on sugary drinks or natural gas, have been ignored, he said.
“They do not want to fix the problems in our schools. They don’t want certified teachers. Their goal has been to tear this thing apart and privatize it as much as they can,” Fertig said. “All it’s doing is smacking these kids in the face because they can’t get people in the classroom that are competent or even safe. What you get are people that should not be in schools. I see it more and more every year.”