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Updated: 1:39 p.m. Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 | Posted: 11:18 a.m. Monday, Aug. 18, 2014

Georgia teacher group says health insurance will skyrocket for many

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By James Salzer

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Insurance premiums for many of the 650,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their dependents on the State Health Benefit Plan could skyrocket next year, according to a new analysis by a teacher group.

That’s contrary to what the Department of Community Health said last week when it approved expanded coverage options and premiums for 2015.

DCH officials said many plan members would see their rates decrease or remain the same. DCH officials did not provide reporters with the actual rates at the time they were approved.

But members of Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices - which has been fighting changes in the health care plan throughout 2014 - analyzed the new rates over the weekend.

The group found that some members currently in two of the three plans being offered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia will see premiums jump 20 percent to 180 percent if they move to some of the new plans being offered.

It also saw major price differences - based on which companies members choose - in the cost of HMO and supplemental Medicare coverage.

John Palmer, a Cobb County middle school band director and member of TRAGIC, said, “These new rates, combined with the excessively high deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums, make this insurance unaffordable for most state employees and teachers.”

Ashley Cline, the wife of a Cherokee County teacher who founded TRAGIC, said the premiums for teachers, retirees and state employees are far higher than they are for University System of Georgia employees. USG workers are also state employees but they are covered under a separate plan.

Palmer said the group would contact DCH and the governor’s office about the premiums.

Lisa Marie Shekell, spokeswoman DCH, said, “The department listened to the concerns presented by our SHBP members last year and is offering more options that provide members with a choice of vendor, plan design and associated costs for 2015.

“We will strive to clearly communicate and educate members about these options. We encourage members to review all benefit information from SHBP regarding the 2015 plan designs, as it becomes available prior to Open Enrollment, and choose an option that meets their individual and family needs.”

Gov. Nathan Deal and DCH had hoped they’d at least temporarily addressed concerns of teachers, retirees and state employees by increasing the number of plan options and holding down premiums. Deal faces voters in the November elections and teachers and retirees traditionally are politically active.

The plan has been a political thorn in Deal’s side since last summer, when the contract to manage the program for 2014 was awarded to Blue Cross. That prompted one of the companies that had been managing the plan, UnitedHealthcare, to sue the state, accusing the DCH of resorting to “state-sponsored bid-rigging” to steer the contract to Blue Cross.

To save money, the state limited the insurance offerings to three plans, with different deductibles and premiums, along with higher out-of-pocket costs.

Once those higher costs started kicking in, teachers, state employees and retirees revolted, forcing Deal and the DCH to add back co-payments for services, costing more than $100 million. The extra money, however, didn’t solve all the plan’s problems, and teachers and retirees called for more choices and better coverage. A class-action lawsuit was filed in May, arguing that thousands of plan members had been overcharged on their premiums.

When DCH’s board approved the rates last week, they didn’t release them to the media. However, UnitedHealthcare officials - who got the rates - immediately complained that the DCH put their company at a competitive disadvantage. Plan members would have to pay 30 percent more for its HMO than the one offered by Blue Cross. UnitedHealthcare’s HMO would cost a family about $1,700 more a year than Blue Cross’.

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