Commentary

State legislature targets retiree health benefits for teachers and state employees

Buried in the fine print of the final budget is a provision that will eliminate retiree health benefits for teachers and other state employees hired after 2021, a move that is both unnecessary and unwise.

This is an extreme solution for a moderate problem. North Carolina could do a better job of preparing for the future costs of retired state employees’ healthcare, but there is no immediate crisis that necessitates extreme measures. Analysts at the General Assembly and State Treasurer Dale Folwell have noted that there are many ways to financially strengthen the state retiree healthcare system so it can continue delivering lifesaving care for retired public servants. If you accidentally wade through some poison ivy, it may be uncomfortable and require some ointment, but that doesn’t mean that you just amputate the injured leg and move on.

This change will ultimately make it harder for North Carolina to attract skilled and committed people into public service. State employees and teachers have long grumbled about a series of policy changes that have made it harder to do their jobs, and more of a hardship to work for the people of North Carolina. Justin Parmenter, a language arts teacher in Charlotte, wrote in the News & Observer that he fears that public service is already falling out of favor with North Carolina’s young professionals, “as teacher salaries have stagnated, additional pay for master’s degrees has been revoked and insurance premiums have steadily risen, our state’s 15 public universities have experienced a 30 percent decrease in education students over the past few years.” This trend will not destroy public services overnight, but in the long run it can dramatically weaken our ability to deliver quality education, build a modern economy, protect public safety, and otherwise keep the proverbial trains running on time.

It’s also rash to make this dramatic of a change without knowing where healthcare policy is headed at the federal level. Many of the healthcare changes being contemplated in Washington could directly impact our options for providing care to retired state employees and the quality of care that is available through different avenues. We have no idea how potential federal changes could impact how fast healthcare costs grow, whether funding for Medicaid and Medicare will be chopped, or if new systems to deliver healthcare to retirees will be developed. With all of this uncertainty swirling around the healthcare system in the United States, it’s just not the time to make the far-reaching changes that this could prove to be.

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