April 24, 2013

Governments may push workers to health exchange

By Mike Baker / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

K-12 workers would have to adopt new bargaining agreements to implement the change, though the state would help by offering sweeteners that would be equivalent to as much as a $2 per hour raise.

Rick Chisa, political director at the Public School Employees of Washington, said the union is open to shifting some workers to the exchange but didn't feel that the current proposal — an inducement valued at perhaps $200 a month for someone working 25 hours a week — provided an adequate incentive, especially if it may be taxed as compensation.

He said the change may eventually make sense for cafeteria workers and teacher's assistants who are on the low end of the pay spectrum, but union leaders also want to see what the insurance product will end up looking like in the exchange before making that move.

"We want to make sure that we're not selling workers short and being mesmerized by a shiny $2 bill," Chisa said. He said it was "very unlikely" for such a shift to happen this year.

The shift could be a problem particularly for part-time workers who have larger family incomes.

Steve Hodes, who works 24 hours a week doing policy work for the Employment Security Department, said he would not qualify for insurance subsidies because his wife makes a decent salary working as an attorney.

He suspects he and his family might be on the hook for thousands of dollars in new expenses if he was moved to the exchange, though solid numbers are elusive since the exchange doesn't exist yet.

"They don't have a clue how much it is," said Hodes, 63.

Under the federal law, large employers who don't provide coverage to full-time workers will face penalties, but they won't face penalties for not covering employees who work under 30 hours a week. Thousands of part-time government employees in Washington state work between 20 and 30 hours a week and currently qualify for state medical coverage.

Observers have been concerned about how private employers will handle the new health care law and the possibility that some may shed insurance coverage. The owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants, for example, began experimenting last year with putting more workers on part-time status.

Virginia is doing something similar, with Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell directing that all part-time state employees work less than 29 hours weekly. That is creating a financially crippling problem for many of Virginia's 9,100 adjunct faculty members at the state's 23 community colleges on 40 campuses statewide.

"I've never anticipated getting rich off being a teacher," said J. Gabriel Scala, an adjunct English professor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond.

"But the rent has to be paid. And I have to eat. And gas has to be put in the car — and $17,000 a year isn't going to do it," she added.

The efforts appear to be the beginning stages of governments working to manage their costs under the health care law.

Washington Democratic state Sen. Jim Hargrove, one of the budget writers who helped develop his state's plan, said lawmakers were considering the option as a way to help both employees and the state budget.

"We're looking," Hargrove said, "at what the possibilities are."

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