BY STATE REPRESENTATIVE NATE BELL –
Last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the legislature met in a special Extraordinary session called by Governor Beebe to address rising costs of public school employees insurance premiums, prison overcrowding, and to address confusion about the types of gambling the lottery commission can use to generate revenue.
The Governor called the special session because without structural changes to the current PSE health insurance plan, our teachers and school staff were facing a 35% increase in premiums later this year.
You may recall that we were called into special session last fall to address a large spike in PSE health insurance costs. At that time we appropriated some one time money to avoid a massive premium increase but also created a legislative task force to seek long term solutions to ensure a stable and sustainable plan.
The task force has been working for several months to find solutions. The Task Force held numerous meetings and heard many hours of testimony from experts, beneficiaries and school administrators. The minutes of these meetings and associated materials are in the Task Force Report which can be found at: http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/education/K12/InitiativesDevelopmentsDocs/Interim%20Report%202014%20State%20and%20Public%20School%20Life%20and%20Health%20Insurance%20Program%20Legislative%20Task%20Force%2006302014.pdf
One of the resulting package of bills was a measure to save the program over $5 million by eliminating the eligibility of part time employees. It was stated by the sponsor of the bill that the majority of these employees will be eligible for coverage either under the Arkansas Private Option or the Obamacare Health Care Exchange. After careful consideration and listening to constituents I voted against this bill but it passed the House 88-6 and was signed into law by the Governor.
Another change was made to the PSE insurance program that addresses eligibility of spouses of participants. If a school district employee’s spouse is offered coverage by their own employer, he or she will no longer be eligible for coverage on the state offered plan.
As I noted in last week’s column, structural changes to the PSE plan were necessary and though the enacted changes are unpleasant, they had near unanimous bipartisan support and will result in much smaller premium increases and a more sustainable system. Additional changes will be necessary and I expect PSE and ASE health insurance to be a hot topic in the 2015 General Session.
We also voted to increase spending to the Department of Correction this year by $6 million. This money will be used to fund 600 additional prison beds to alleviate prison overcrowding and overcrowding in our county jails. This bill was supported by each of our local county sheriffs.
The lottery bill that ultimately passed is a compromise measure which bars the lottery commission from using electronic bingo and keno style games until March 13, 2015. The bill is a compromise which will allow legislators more time to study the issue and address it in the next Regular Session.
If you would like to review the testimony on the bills and watch the historic session inside the Old State House you can visit our video library at arkansashouse.org.
Thanks for allowing me to represent you at the State Capitol.