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Taxpayers fund generous health care plan for state employees, policymakers

Some advocates for the poor say it seems unfair that policymakers who oppose expanding Medicaid in Oklahoma get to participate in one of the best tax-financed insurance programs in the country.
BY WARREN VIETH and CLIFTON ADCOCK -- Oklahoma Watch Modified: August 5, 2013 at 7:29 pm •  Published: August 6, 2013
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When Gov. Mary Fallin and Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb go see their primary-care doctors, they pay $30 out of pocket. Their prescriptions cost $10 if they get generics, more if they get name-brand drugs.

Oklahoma taxpayers pick up the entire cost of their insurance premiums, which total $18,113 per year for each of their families.

In fact, the health allowance they receive from the state totals $19,717 a year. They can use the surplus to pay for other state benefits or roll it into their take-home pay.

Fallin and Lamb are treated no better or worse than any of the 78,760 state employees and dependents who receive health insurance as part of their benefit packages.

See who is covered, who is not — from OklahomaWatch.org

State officials acknowledge that their employee health benefits are robust. Few private or public-sector plans routinely cover the entire cost of family health-plan premiums — and then some.

“They have, comparatively speaking, a fairly generous benefit allowance for their health insurance,” said Frank Wilson, the state's plan administrator.

“It's way rich,” said Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, one of 143 state legislators who participate in the state insurance programs.

State officials note that the generous benefit package helps offset the fact that state jobs don't pay as much as some private-sector positions and that state employees haven't received an across-the-board raise since 2006.

Opposed to Medicaid

Yet some advocates for the poor say it seems unfair that policymakers who oppose expanding Medicaid in Oklahoma get to participate in one of the best tax-financed insurance programs in the country.

“It's interesting that a group of policymakers that basically depend upon the taxpayers to pay the entire premium for their family are saying they're against any kind of government subsidies for health insurance,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, whose family is enrolled in the same plan as Fallin and Lamb.

Medicaid, of course, is a federal entitlement program for the poor, while Oklahoma's insurance coverage for state workers is an employee-provided benefit program. The question of whether to expand Medicaid involves considerations of a range of issues, including cost and public health.

“The governor believes that state employees, like troopers, social workers and elected officials, should receive health benefits, just as she thinks they should be paid a salary,” said Alex Weintz, the governor's press secretary.

“Benefits and salaries of state employees are entirely separate issues from entitlement programs such as Medicaid and unemployment insurance. … The bottom line is we don't think the state can afford to provide free government insurance to another 200,000 Oklahomans the way it's set up under Obamacare.”

The cost of Fallin's and Lamb's coverage could be calculated because both of them provided information on their health plans requested by Oklahoma Watch. Their health benefits are in addition to annual salaries of $147,000 and $114,713.

The Oklahoma Watch survey was sent to 11 statewide elected officials and 60 legislators holding leadership positions in both parties. Participants were asked whether they and their dependents participated in state-provided health insurance plans and to identify the plans they chose.

Of 11 statewide elected officials, nine provided the information requested. The two who did not were Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Labor Commissioner Mark Costello.

All but one of the statewide elected officials said they were enrolled in HealthChoice High, the most popular of the eight health insurance plans offered by the state and the one chosen by Fallin and Lamb. Most of them said their spouses and/or children were enrolled, too.

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OKLAHOMA WATCH

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. It receives funding from the Oklahoma City-based Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation.

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