22,000 bus drivers, others could lose health benefits under Deal plan

State officials said Tuesday that almost 22,000 Georgians could lose health coverage if the General Assembly backs Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to eliminate state-subsidized health coverage for school employees who work less than 30 hours per week.

State officials have said 10,500 employees would lose coverage. But Department of Community Health Commissioner Clyde Reese told a House Budget subcommittee Tuesday that nearly 22,000 could potentially lose out, including the family members of bus drivers and cafeteria workers who are on State Health Benefit Plan coverage.

When asked how those employees and dependents would get coverage in the future, Reese said some may be eligible for subsidies to help them pay for insurance through the federal health exchanges. The exchanges are a key part of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

That may be a difficult option for state lawmakers, who last year approved a bill that Deal signed into law prohibiting state or local governments from advocating for Medicaid expansion or from creating a state-run health insurance exchange.

Reese said some children of the workers may be eligible for other state health care programs, such as PeachCare.

“If you are asking me if we can guarantee that everybody … will get coverage, the answer is no,” the commissioner said.

Deal proposed eliminating state subsidies for part-time employees in the budget for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1. Coverage would end Jan. 1. The governor’s budget office said it would save about $81 million, down from $103 million state officials had earlier stated. DCH officials said it would save even less.

Deal called it a “fairness” issue, saying that part-time state workers are not eligible for coverage. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that at least 377 part-time state legislators and dependents are covered by the State Health Benefit Plan. So are many retired state lawmakers who served at least four two-year terms.

Reese said something needs to be done because insurance for “noncertified” employees — bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, office staff — has been heavily subsidized by the more than 500,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and dependents on the SHBP. The “noncertified” employee portion of the plan ran a $135 million shortfall last year, state official said.

“We have to have an honest and frank discussion about what to do about that,” he said.

Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, a member of the subcommittee, said, “We have to think about the impact on the plan, but we also have to think about the impact on individual citizens.”

Most lawmakers have voiced support for supplying some health insurance to part-time school workers. But some think that decision, and the cost of paying for any coverage, should be shifted to local school districts.

Many school bus drivers have been contacting lawmakers, telling them that health coverage is the job’s prime benefit. Some lawmakers fear a massive shortage of school bus drivers if the insurance is discontinued.

Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, chairman of the subcommittee, said he thinks the General Assembly will find a way to continue SHBP coverage for part-time school employees for the upcoming year. The Department of Community Health plans to study the plan’s future in coming months and will come up with a report on the issue this summer.

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