Legislature Close To Restoring Double Health Care for Some Public Sector Employees

Oregon House by Elon Glucklich good.jpg

SALEM – A union-backed effort to restore double health insurance coverage for couples both employed by the government has picked up steam.

Unions and school district administrators had loudly protested a 2017 health care cost reduction package that lawmakers touted as a $178 million savings measure -- a figure budget officials later revised to between $149 million and $163 million. Among other things, the package eliminated double coverage for public employees enrolled in health plans through the Public Employees’ Benefit Board or the Oregon Educators Benefit Board, which cover nearly 300,000 public employees and their dependents.

But a bill to restore the benefit sailed through the Oregon House of Representatives last Thursday, passing 25-4.

"The opt out (elimination) was supposed to save the state money, but as it turned out that's not necessarily going to be case," Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said. "More importantly, they could have profound impacts on local school district budgets because opt-out payments are an important tool used by districts to mitigate the full cost of a premium."

When two adults in the same household are both enrolled through the boards, they can use one policy to cover health care expenses and have the other one to pick up costs like copays. Also, employees who opt out of health coverage receive a taxable monthly payment of $233, and yet they can still retain coverage through their spouse or partner’s plan.

The policy has been a popular recruiting tool for school districts, especially in rural parts of the state, where the government represents a large swath of the employment base.

So school employees, administrators and union activists turned up the heat on House and Senate Democrats at the start of this year's legislative session, urging them to pass legislation reversing the benefit rollback while keeping other elements of the health care savings package in place.

House Democrats proposed House Bill 3075 early in this year's session to restore the double coverage and opt-out benefits. While that bill sat in a House committee, lawmakers quietly placed its contents in a separate bill, House Bill 2266, as an amendment early this month.

HB 2266 now heads to the Senate. Gov. Kate Brown said early in the session that she supported restoring double coverage and opt-out benefits, meaning the bill is likely to become law if the Senate passes it.

The bill does maintain one cost-saving mechanism. It requires the Public Employees’ Benefit Board or the Oregon Educators Benefit Board to assess a surcharge on an eligible employee who provides coverage for a spouse if that person could receive employee health care coverage in another government employee health benefit plan. The boards would determine those surcharge amounts.

The bill also requires the benefit boards to conduct eligibility reviews for dependents enrolled in coverage through their spouse and to report rate changes to the Legislature each year.

"This bill strikes the right balance, I believe, between what the Legislature was trying to achieve in 2017 and maintaining benefits" for public employees, Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, said Thursday.

Have a tip about the health-care industry or legislation? You can reach Elon Glucklich at [email protected].

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