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State Health Plan mess gets messier

imagesToday the SHP Blue Ribbon Task Force met to sort out some of the long-term problems with the insurance plan that covers more than 660,000 current and former state employees.

Although much of the meeting was a rehash of statistics we’ve all seen before, I found three bits of information especially enlightening.

First, the SHP is going to conduct random cheek swabs on all state employees to check for smoking status — we knew that. But the SHP administration has always said the random checks would be done at work sites.

Today, for the first time, SHP Executive Director Jack Walker said the random checks will now be done off-site. The SHP will require that randomly chosen state employees drive to an off-site lab or clinic to get a cheek swab before or after work. After all, we wouldn’t want to take up time at work for such fun activities as having a lab tech swirl a cotton-covered stick around in your mouth.

Second, low-wage workers make up a disproportionate share of smoking and obese state employees. Many smokers and obese employees make less than $25,000 per year. That gets to a fundamental unfairness with the wellness initiative — it punishes low-wage workers much more severely than high-wage workers.

If a state employee smokes or is obese the financial penalties are not adjusted according to income. All workers violating the wellness provisions go to a higher cost-sharing insurance plan.

For an employee making $25,000 per year the added out-of-pocket costs in shifting to the less generous plan could be devastating. For Jack Walker, who makes at least $200,000, the added expense is unlikely to hurt much. And for the highest paid state employees, who make more than $1 million per year, the shift in insurance plan is nothing.

Imposing a penalty for smoking is one thing. Crippling family budgets for using tobacco is quite another.

Third, there is a teacher serving on the Blue Ribbon Task Force who spoke eloquently to the burdens faced by low-paid employees. She described her friend who is a teaching assistant paying more than a third of her monthly income to cover her spouse.

She spoke of another teaching assistant who spends so much paying for SHP family coverage that she can’t actually see the doctor — there is no money left at the end of the month for co-pays and co-insurance. She noted several times that we should consider the people who are educating our children as the Task Force makes decisions.

I’m not taking bets on it, but I hope her message sticks in the minds of lawmakers.