Surpluses will not continue

Jason Haught, the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency’s chief financial officer, had good advice for all of us in the Mountain State last week.

It came during a PEIA Finance Board meeting at which it was reported the agency, which provides health insurance for as many as 200,000 government employees, retirees and their families, is in good shape financially, at least for now.

Finance board members were told the PEIA is expected to end the current fiscal year on June 30 with a $31 million surplus in its accounts. Next year could be much better, with a $70 million surplus.

That was for the program as a whole. Retired public employees, many living on fixed incomes that make it tough to cope with insurance premium increases, got good news, too. The trust fund covering them should end this fiscal year with $37.6 million in the bank. Next year, growth is expected to total $38.5 million.

“In the future, when there’s really bad news in front of you, remember days like this,” Haught told finance board members.

Indeed. Like most good things, this one won’t last. Health care costs continue rising steadily. Surpluses now and next year will provide some cushion, but the money will be used up and, depending on circumstances, surpluses could turn quickly to deficits.

PEIA Director Ted Cheatham understands that. So his advice — meant, really, for all West Virginians — is that last week’s news does not take the pressure off a task force appointed by Gov. Jim Justice to find long-term solutions to PEIA finances. Members of that panel need to find both state revenue to bolster the agency and ways to reduce health care costs.

Merely identifying the $50 million a year in new revenue that has been cited so often during recent weeks will not be enough. New ways of reducing expenses — the very reason for surpluses now and next year — are needed, too.

Haught is right. The news now is good. That will not continue indefinitely.