By Andy Miller
Georgia Health News
Driven largely by rising medical costs, health insurance premiums are expected to rise next year for many U.S. workers.
Not so for Georgia teachers and state employees.
Their 2019 premiums, deductibles, copays and co-insurance will remain the same as this year in the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP), Geogia’s Department of Community Health said Thursday. The same benefit offerings – from HMO through high-deductible health plan – will also be the same.
The SHBP, with a budget of $3.2 billion, covers 650,000 state employees, teachers, other school personnel, retirees and dependents.
A retired state employee, Dan Ebersole, told the DCH board Thursday that he was ‘‘ecstatic’’ about the 2019 costs.
Ebersole, a member of the 12-member advisory council for the SHBP, said its July 31 meeting on the new rates was short. “Good news doesn’t require discussion,’’ he told the board.
That good news on 2019 costs follows a year in which state employees and teachers had an average premium increase of about 3.7 percent for coverage.
For state retirees who are in Medicare Advantage plans, meanwhile, 2019 premium levels will vary.
Those in the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield ‘‘standard’’ plan will see a monthly reduction from $44 to zero, and those in the Anthem ‘‘premium’’ plan will see a monthly increase of $63.
Meanwhile, retirees in UnitedHealthcare’s standard plan will see a hike of $81 in the monthly premium, while those in United’s premium plan will see zero increase.
Jeff Rickman, chief of the SHBP, credited savings from switching pharmacy benefit manager companies, and bringing competition to Medicare members, for helping to keep employee costs stable.
“We feel pretty confident about the savings,” Rickman said. “I think the plan has continued to improve its financial standing.”
The State Health Benefit Plan’s recent stability is a sharp contrast to the turmoil four years ago, when a wave of complaints from members on State Health Benefit Plan changes led to a quick fix for that year’s plan and to more revisions in the 2015 plan. A Facebook group was formed in 2014 to protest SHBP changes.
John Palmer, a spokesman for that group, Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices (TRAGIC), said Thursday that “we are pleased that the costs and services of the SHBP will at least remain stable for this upcoming [election] year.’’
“However, even though we have built back the plan reserves and the economy is booming,” the state has not restored the funding that was cut from the plan during the recession a few years ago, Palmer said.
School districts are still struggling to provide insurance for all school district employees, he said.
“Additionally, the shared costs passed on to support personnel make this insurance almost unaffordable on a bus driver salary,’’ Palmer said. “This is having a significant impact on districts’ ability to recruit and retain critical education support staff such as custodians, bus drivers, and school secretaries.”
Margaret Ciccarelli of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators said her organization is pleased by premiums and co-pays staying the same.
“Reliable and affordable health insurance is an important part of educator compensation packages,” she said. “It ensures that educators are fit for work in Georgia schools. Georgia educators did not receive a state pay increase this year, so today’s announcement provides relief for educators across the state who worried about the impact of a potential net decrease in compensation due to increased SHBP premiums.”
SHBP’s Rickman also said a weight-loss pilot program has launched for 5,500 members who volunteered for the initiative, and it’s free of charge. And he said that beginning in January, mental health benefits will be equal to those of physical health benefits, reflecting “parity’’ legislation.
The age limit will be abolished for those getting “applied behavior analysis’’ therapy – recognized as effective in autism treatment. Residential treatment centers and methadone clinics will be covered, Rickman said.