Under attack, state worker group insurance change to be reconsidered

State House News Service
Thursday, January 25, 2018

BOSTON — The Group Insurance Commission, relenting to days of withering criticism over its decision to limit health plan offerings to nearly 450,000 state employees and retirees, plans to reconsider that plan when it meets next week.

The GIC has a meeting scheduled for next Thursday when it was supposed to consider benefit design within the three providers — UniCare, Neighborhood Health and Health New England — that were selected to sell plans through the agency after a procurement process.

The agency now says it will put a motion for reconsideration of the 8-5 vote held Jan. 18 on its agenda for the Feb. 1 meeting.

“As a result of candid feedback from members and stakeholders, the agenda of the next GIC Commission meeting on Thursday, February 1 will include a motion for reconsideration of the recent vote to narrow carriers. While the goal of the GIC action to narrow options was to provide members with continuous coverage in a comparable plan while retaining their networks and doctors, and simultaneously controlling out-of-pocket and premium costs, the GIC recognizes that there is opportunity to better engage stakeholders more directly and robustly in the strategic process moving forward,” GIC Chief of Staff Ashley Maagero Lee said in a statement Thursday morning.

The GIC said that if the motion to reconsider is successful, a second vote will be put on the table to “accept the full list of finalists to the platform,” which would bring Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Tufts Health Plan and Fallon Community Health back into the fold.

The reinstatement of those three Massachusetts-based insurers would prevent roughly 200,000 people from having to choose a new insurance plan, although the GIC has insisted that even with a switch those people would not have lost access to their doctors or networks.

The reversal also removes the possibility that those insurers may have had to resort to layoffs after losing a significant piece of their business.

National Association of Government Employees President David Holway issued a statement Thursday in response to the announcement thanking the five labor representatives on the GIC and many lawmakers — include House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler, House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, Rep. James O’Day, Sen. Cindy Friedman and Sen. Karen Spilka — for speaking out against the changes.

“It is obvious that the governor heard the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of those effected (sic) by this ill-conceived and non-transparent plan marching to the polls to express their anger towards the Baker administration,” Holway said in the statement.

The NAGE president, however, cautioned, “This reprieve, if voted on, could possibly only be temporary until the Governors re-election bid in November.”

At the meeting last Thursday, the GIC voted to eliminate three of the six insurance carriers that offer coverage to the nearly 450,000 state employees and retirees. The change eliminates Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Fallon Community Health and Tufts Health Plan as carriers, and would save the state an estimated $20.8 million next year.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg has criticized the state Group Insurance Commission’s plan to move 200,000 public employees onto different health insurance carriers, saying it “will turn a lot of people’s health care on its head for a savings of 1 percent” and would be made unnecessary by passage of a Senate Ways and Means bill to help save $500 million from the state’s health care system in the year beginning July 1.

Agency officials said that without the restructuring health insurance costs for members would have increased by 5 percent next year, and they have tried to assure labor unions and retirees that they will retain access to their current doctors and networks even if they are forced to switch plans.

Unions, lawmakers and other public officials have said they felt blindsided by the decision, and are skeptical of the GIC’s assurances that members will not lose access to their doctors. Labor leaders said their members on the commission, who all voted against the restructuring, said they did not receive final details of the plan until the evening before the vote.

All commission members are appointed by the governor, who on Wednesday said he agreed with critics that the rollout of the health plan restructuring was “very poor,” even if the goal of keeping health insurance costs down for members was “noble.”

Gov. Charlie Baker reiterated his call for agency leaders to meet with unions and other stakeholders who have been outraged by both the policy change and the process to clear up the confusion the vote has caused. House and Senate committees have jumped into the fray, planning formal inquiries.

The GIC has defended the process that it says began in July and included regularly communicating with union representatives on the commission about the direction of the new carrier procurement and the possibility of consolidation.