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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State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi chose a different plan, the HealthChoice S-Account. It is a higher-deductible, lower-premium policy designed for use with a tax-sheltered health savings account.

Of the 60 legislators surveyed, seven responded. Among the top leadership, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said he and his wife were enrolled in one of the HealthChoice plans, but he didn't specify which one. Senate Democratic Leader Burrage said his family was enrolled in HealthChoice High.

Some didn't respond

House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, and House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, did not provide the requested information.

The Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which oversees the state plans, declined to provide health coverage information about individual legislators or other state officials, citing federal law. But in response to an Open Records request submitted by Oklahoma Watch, the agency's human capital management division provided summary figures showing how many legislators participate in each plan.

Of the 149 members of the Oklahoma Senate and House, 143 are currently enrolled, the agency said.

The Office of Management and Enterprise Services coordinates health insurance benefits for all state employees, most educators, and many local government workers, including dependents and retirees. Its plans cover 219,676 Oklahomans, or nearly 6 percent of the state's population.

$78 million extra

State employees receive a fixed allowance on top of their salaries to cover the cost of health insurance. The amounts were determined by the Legislature and have been frozen since 2012.

The current allowance is $7,273 for the employee, an additional $8,061 for his or her spouse, an additional $2,759 if one dependent child is enrolled, or an additional $4,383 if two or more children participate.

For a family of four, the allowance adds up to $19,717 a year.

The allowances provided to state employees exceed the cost of their premiums in most of the health plans. Employees can use the surplus to help pay for other benefits, like dental or vision coverage. Any remaining balance shows up in their paycheck in the form of taxable take-home pay.

The health insurance allowances provided to state workers and their dependents cost Oklahoma taxpayers $426 million in 2012. The premiums paid by employees totaled $348 million, meaning allowances exceeded premiums by $78 million.

Oklahoma is one of only seven states that paid 100 percent or more of the health insurance costs of at least some state employees and their family members, according to a report issued in December by a working group headed by Office of Management and Enterprise Services Director Preston Doerflinger.

Doerflinger's agency recently hired a California consulting firm to conduct a study of state employee salaries and benefits to determine how they compare to those of other public and private employees. Its findings are expected in October.

Total compensation

Employee advocates say the benefits received by state workers should be viewed in the context of total compensation. They cite a 2012 state survey that found state employees, on average, are paid 24 percent less than the competitive market rate for their jobs. When the value of benefits was included in the calculation, the shortfall was 16 percent.

“Yes, those who don't spend all of their (health insurance) allowance get to keep it in their salary,” said Joe Dunning, spokesman for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “But they're using that to live on because they haven't had a pay increase in seven years.”

Some lawmakers contend the state insurance program is too generous, and does not provide adequate incentives for workers to keep their health care costs as low as possible. They want to create new incentives to expand use of health savings accounts that feature high-deductible policies, like the one Barresi chose.

“The HealthChoice plan itself has always been very rich, both in benefits and in allowance,” said Murphey, the Guthrie lawmaker. “It doesn't make any sense. It's not in line with the market in other states. But we need to view this as a total compensation package issue. We need to redo the entire thing, from retirement to performance pay to benefits, to put it in line with what employees would experience in the free market.”

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.



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.



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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