Analysis: Lawmakers have limited options in their efforts to stop La. health program changes

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Besieged with complaints, Louisiana lawmakers have responded with a mix of loud criticism and worry about Gov. Bobby Jindal's sweeping changes to the health insurance program for state workers, teachers and retirees.

But for now, that's about all they can do.

Until they return for a legislative session in April, lawmakers have few ways to force change in the Jindal administration plans, despite the screaming of their constituents and any indignation the officials might share with them.

And by the time the regular session begins, the rewritten health insurance plans will already be in place as workers and retirees show up to their doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies.

The Jindal administration is under fire for its handling of health insurance plans administered through the Office of Group Benefits, which covers 230,000 state workers, public school teachers, retirees and their dependents. Insurance program members face higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs under a rewrite of benefits slated to begin March 1.

"I have been flooded with phone calls," Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, told administration officials recently at a packed legislative hearing. "You've got a lot of folks scared."

The administration blames rising health care costs and new federal regulations. But the people most affected are faulting what they consider the governor's mismanagement of the program.

"We've created a problem that we've put on the backs of state workers," said Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson.

Critics say the administration inappropriately dropped premiums for two years to cut state agency costs in tight budget years, a move that drained the group benefits' reserve fund by more than half and has the program paying out $16 million more a month than it takes in.

"It's a mess financially," said Treasurer John Kennedy. "It's kind of like Thelma and Louise in that car headed to the cliff."

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor's chief budget adviser, said the $500 million reserve fund was too large. She said the premium cuts gave workers and retirees financial relief while shrinking the size of what she described as an "inflated" reserve.

Whatever the reason for the premium cuts, the insurance program would be nearly broke by the end of this budget year without either cost reductions or an influx of new cash.

"We take this very seriously, and this is a big deal," Nichols told lawmakers. "But the issues in front of us can't be ignored."

Urged by state lawmakers to slow the changes, the administration agreed to delay benefit plan rewrites by two months. They had been planned to start Jan. 1. Also, members of the health insurance program were given an extra month to make decisions about what benefit plan they'll select. They have until Nov. 30.

But retirees, workers and some lawmakers want the benefit changes reconsidered entirely.

Rep. John Bel Edwards, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is among lawmakers calling for legislative oversight hearings on the Group Benefits changes.

"It is critically important that the administration act in good faith and genuinely consider the testimony and the plight of affected OGB members as well as its own culpability," he wrote in a recent letter to newspapers.

Edwards, D-Amite, a 2015 candidate for governor, urged the administration to "ditch the ill-conceived plan changes and start from scratch."

That seems unlikely to happen so far.

While the changes will go through a formal process of legislative review and public comment, Nichols said she didn't expect to tweak much of the insurance benefit redesign.

"We don't anticipate making changes, certainly not large-scale changes," she said.

Lawmakers on the committees that oversee the health insurance program could reject the rewrite of benefits planned to start March 1, but the governor can override that decision.

"Is there anything the Legislature can do to stop this process?" asked Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek.

Legislators can hope public pressure weighs on the administration and the outcry is loud enough to force reconsideration. Retirees are talking about a possible lawsuit. Otherwise, the options appear to be few before the new insurance plans kick in.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.

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