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School employees deserve break from rising premiums
Timothy Sweeney is deputy director of policy for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, - photo by File photo

Georgia recently released a 24-page report examining the costs of the State Health Benefit Plan, the health-insurance plan for state employees, including school-district employees.

The report is a requirement built into Georgia’s amended 2015 budget and was produced by the international human-resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt. It compares the state plan to other comparable state-employee plans in the Southeast, including the plan serving University System of Georgia employees. The report also provides some analysis of the financial issues Georgia’s plan administrators must weigh on behalf of the state’s 180 school districts’ bus drivers, lunchroom workers and other non-certified employees. This all came to a head as a response to the 2016 budget’s provision to increase charges to school districts on behalf of these employees.

The report notes that geography, demographics and the number of dependents per employee are among the external factors that that explain why Georgia’s plan costs run fairly high compared to the other plans. However, it is important to note that the report finds that no amount of adjusting offsets the fact that state employees and teachers in Georgia bear a greater financial burden for their health insurance than their counterparts under most of the comparison plans.

Overall employee costs came in nearly 30 percent higher than the average across the comparable plans examined. The consultant adjusted for geography, demographics and adult dependents, which improved Georgia’s ranking, but still left costs for participating employees as the second-highest of the seven plans examined, or 17 percent more than the average across the plans. Out-of-pocket costs registered 22 percent higher than the average, even after Aon’s adjustments.

Georgia plan administrators acted many times in the past decade to move employees into plans with higher deductibles in order to reduce overall costs to the plan itself. The state tweaked monthly premium support to encourage employees to select high-deductible plans, for example, but in 2014, the state eliminated traditional health-maintenance organization-type plans, and participating workers were pushed to participate in a health savings-account-type plan. Such a switch in coverage often means an unplanned change in doctors. The HMO-style options returned in 2015, but switching back to such a plan required workers to change their insurance carrier and, potentially, their doctors yet again.

The Aon report also offers options for state policymakers, a few of which should be highest on the priority list for policymakers looking to improve the value of the plan for the 650,000 Georgians enrolled. The consultants discuss delivery-system reform, such as increasing care coordination and the movement toward patient-centered medical homes. The report notes that these options are not broadly available across Georgia. It is worth noting that a plan with pockets as deep as the State Health Benefit Plan could be in position to help drive improvement in these fields with increased focus and investment. The report also cites the potential of on-site health clinics to help reduce costs. ...

Finally, the report acknowledges that policymakers can increase the share of the costs borne by the employer in order to reduce employee costs. Increasing the share paid by the employer would raise costs for state agencies and local school districts, and that could be a tough task. ... At the very least, this report should persuade them to see that state employees already are paying more than their share.

This column was distributed by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, which describes itself as an independent think tank whose mission is to build a more-prosperous Georgia by analyzing tax policies and providing education to inspire informed debate and responsible decision-making.

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