Solving the PEIA problem

Members of a task force appointed by Gov. Jim Justice to find “a permanent solution” to the Public Employees Insurance Agency are to hold their initial meeting on Tuesday. Let us hope their first step is to agree to find a real solution, not just a way to throw more money at the problem.

Justice appointed the panel as a result of the strike by public school employees. Many said their demand to “fix PEIA” was of more concern than their stance on pay raises.

Nearly 80,000 Mountain State residents who work for state government or are retired from it rely on the PEIA for health insurance. Their anger at increasing premiums and trimmed benefits helped many of them to the picket lines.

Justice and legislators mollified the strikers somewhat by pledging to use state funds to cancel premium increases that were scheduled to kick in this summer for PEIA enrollees. Enough funding to freeze premiums until July 2019 was provided.

What then? No one with any knowledge of health care and insurance costs can doubt that by mid-2019, prices will have increased to the point that a new round of premium hikes is necessary. What will state officials do then?

Taxpayers already cover 80 percent of PEIA enrollees’ premiums. That costs between $450 million and $500 million a year.

A permanent freeze on premiums would mean the taxpayer share would go up — and up, and up. Mountain State residents and businesses simply cannot afford that.

So, members of the governor’s task force need to find ways to control health insurance costs. Part of that process may well mean making PEIA enrollees more responsible for their own wellness.

It also may mean letting the premium freeze end in July 2019. PEIA enrollees will have no incentive to help control health care costs if they can rely on taxpayers to cover any premium increases.

There is no easy way out of the PEIA dilemma. Members of the task force should focus on what real solutions can be found, not just on how to guarantee a taxpayer-funded revenue stream to cover higher costs.