Teachers and state retirees rally for better health coverage

Teachers and retirees protesting costly changes in their health care plan wanted to make two things clear Tuesday when they rallied outside the Capitol: They will vote this year, and Gov. Nathan Deal is going to have a hard time winning their support.

Many of them blame Deal for changes made in the State Health Benefit Plan, which covers 650,000 teachers, retirees, state employees and their dependents. Those changes, they said, are costing them way more money, limiting what is covered and forcing them to search for doctors because their longtime physicians aren’t in their new network.

“I won’t tell you who to vote for, but I intend to vote for candidates who stand for us and not against us,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County middle school band director. “I intend to vote for candidates who believe in public service.”

More than 100 people rallied to protest the changes, which took effect Jan. 1.

To save $200 million a year, Deal’s Department of Community Health decided to shift more of the cost of health care to those covered on the plan. The new plan also offered only one provider, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia.

Almost as soon as the changes took effect, the wife of a Cherokee County teacher, Ashley Cline, founded a group called TRAGIC — Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices — which now has 14,000 members.

Deal faces re-election this year, and teachers and state retirees are huge voting blocs. By late January, Deal and DCH agreed to eliminate some of the high out-of-pocket costs. That move cost the state about $100 million a year.

The governor said Tuesday that any additional changes would be up to the DCH board.

“We have put over $100 million additional dollars into the state health benefit plan with the purpose of putting back in place a co-pay-type arrangement, which was the part that some people didn’t like moving from,” Deal said. “This is what we think is acceptable middle ground.”

TRAGIC members made it clear they expect more. Teachers and retirees swept through the statehouse Tuesday to lobby lawmakers. They delivered a petition to the governor’s office with 3,800 signatures asking for more changes. And they called on members to register to vote, if they haven’t already, and had forms to hand out so members could apply for absentee ballots for the May 20 primaries.

During a rally outside the statehouse, TRAGIC members told stories of having therapy bills jump 500 percent, of having to hunt to find pharmacies that would sell them medicine they could afford, of having to switch doctors because theirs weren’t in Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s network. In one case, they said, a Savannah teacher nearly died after neglecting to go to the doctor when he became sick because he worried about the cost.

“It was all done so the state could save a few bucks and balance the state budget on our backs in an election year,” said Jamie Wills, a Cherokee County teacher. “It’s wrong our families are suffering because of poor decisions, the poor decisions of Governor Deal and his leadership at the Department of Community Health.”

Kim Snyder, a pregnant Cobb County teacher, said the cost of her basic obstetrician visits went from almost nothing to $300-$400 a month under the new plan. “At this point, it would be cheaper for me to quit my job, get on Medicaid and have the government taxpayers pay for my baby. How is that right? Our first-born child will cost more than a new car.”

Cline said the cost of her daughter’s therapy treatments jumped 500 percent under the new plan.

“We have been forced to weigh the health and well-being of our children against our pocketbooks,” she said. “We are witnessing what happens when government and its agencies operate on a shoe-string budget. They trip over the laces. And, in our cases, we are the ones taking the fall.”

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report