Bill would prod state workers to improve health

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi officials propose charging different rates for state workers’ and teachers’ health insurance, depending on whether those covered by the plan take steps to manage potentially expensive health conditions.

Some House members are worried that the change could be overly punitive, though. Their opposition led House Insurance Chairman Gary Chism, R-Columbus, to set the bill aside after a brief floor fight Thursday. No vote was taken, but the issue could return. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.

State Insurance Administrator Teresa Planch told Chism’s committee Tuesday that the insurance plan envisions charging less if people who use tobacco, or are overweight, or have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol work to improve their health. The State and School Employees’ Health Insurance Plan covers more than 100,000 employees, teachers, retirees and family members.

About 78,000 employees hired before 2006 pay $20 a month for individual health insurance, while 32,000 hired in 2006 or later pay $38 a month. Another 8,000 employees pay nothing, but must pay a higher deductible out of their own pockets before insurance kicks in. Retirees pay more, and those with spouses or children pay more to cover family members.

Planch said other states have either raised rates or given discounts ranging between $15 and $40 a month. So employees on the $20-a-month plan could get free health insurance if they participate. And those on the current free plan could end up paying $20 a month if they don’t cooperate.

Proponents say employees don’t have to conquer obesity or smoking, just show that they’re trying to do something about it, by seeing their doctor or taking part in wellness programs the insurance plan already offers.

“If you’ll simply participate in the program, we’ll say you’re managing your disease state,” Planch told the committee. “The whole discussion has been around not trying to find a way to penalize people, but to encourage people to take advantage of these programs.”

She said the nudge of paying more could “significantly improve” participation.

Planch said Thursday that people with “no risk factors” would get the same break as those who are managing their problems. It’s unclear if periodic testing for risk factors would be required.

She said the state spent $505 million on employee and retiree health insurance last year, while employees paid only $35 million in premiums. She also said it’s important to improve health because employees tend to work for the state a long time, meaning a problem ignored now could result in the state paying for years of expensive treatment.

The plan is waiting for legislative approval to work out the exact details, though, which left some lawmakers concerned about what employees could face.

“They do not have a voice on that insurance board,” Rep. Sherra Lane, D-Waynesboro, said of state employees during Thursday’s debate. She said she wanted to see an actual proposal before voting to allow the changes.

Rep. Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said that monitoring someone’s health was intrusive, and also said that some employees would have to spend money from their own pocket to see their doctor to qualify for a premium break.

“We’re supposed to be living in a free country, and it’s getting less free all the time,” Malone said. “The working people of Mississippi have better things to do than go to a doctor just because they smoke. They know what the doctor’s going to say.”

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The bill is House Bill 479