Health insurance remains at the forefront of capital discussions

Insurance, in one form or another, took most of the focus and deliberation in the legislature last week. First, the issue of rate increases in “teacher insurance” is still being studied and debated. Governor Beebe has stated that he is not likely to call a special session unless a consensus is reached in advance on what to do about the problem. He wants any short-term fix to be tied to a long-term solution. Most agree a big problem lies in that arena. 

Governor Beebe says, and most agree, that every option is “on the table”; including, but not limited to; changes in the insurance plans, further reductions in benefits, shifting money from other funds, requiring school districts to put more of their state moneys into health insurance plans, and rolling back tax cuts that have not yet taken effect. Other options proposed include letting schools form their own plans or giving teachers subsidies for insurance so that they could then purchase their own plans through health-insurance exchanges. As I have said previously, this problem should have been solved before it reached this point. Now a company of professionals have been hired by Legislative Auditing to assess the situation and make recommendations for a permanent fix.          

Most believe that benefits may have to be changed in the long run, and some plans, like the Gold Plan with its no deductible, no co-pay, no caps features, has to go. Others believe that placing school employees and state employees in the same pool should also be on the table. Still others aren’t convinced that it is “their problem”. There is still an agreement to be reached and undoubtedly it will include more than one change. I don’t think anyone will get everything they want.    

At another meeting this week we learned that details of the plans and the rates for the new health insurance exchange are expected to be released on Monday, September 23. Enrollment is expected to begin on October 1 and coverage begins January 1. (Out of curiosity I’d check the rates at my earliest opportunity.  There is another little glitch. A legislative panel has decided to delay yet again funding to advertise/promote these rates and plans so it will likely be more difficult to be informed when enrollment begins. Some lawmakers decided to wait and see what the premiums are before spending additional money to fund it.  Some fear the rates will be too high since the plans can no longer deny coverage to anyone. The exchange rates are said to be affordable, but to whom. I’m sure the teachers’ insurance rates are affordable to the insurance company.  Are the new rates really affordable? Who knows? I’m not sure anyone does. At least no one is speaking up. Maybe we’ll have more facts on Monday.   

I want to again applaud the Mainline Health System clinics for their voluntary efforts to hold local meetings to inform the public about the new health insurance marketplace. They are doing a great service to the communities and we should all appreciate their efforts to educate us whether we agree with the health plans or not. Mainline Clinics, under the administration of our own Allen Nichols, serves Drew and other counties in our area. Thanks, Mainline! 

Education is always an issue at the forefront too. This week Higher Education took center stage with discussions about the various scholarship programs they manage—24 in all. In 2013 the department distributed $52,128,898. (You may remember there was a $4.7 million dollar shortfall that the legislature covered.) In 2014 a projected amount to be awarded for scholarships is $51,681,570. At current levels this may indicate another shortfall next year. That will have to be watched. As you can see, these situations testify to the need for “Rainy Day” funds. We have to fulfill our promises to our children. Yet the money can, and will, run out if all entities get all they want. We can’t let that happen in a balanced budget state—and it isn’t fiscally responsible.

I found it interesting to hear that since the lottery is making less money and award amounts have been decreased, fewer scholarships were sought. In fact, the number awarded in traditional scholarships dropped by 205 from 2013 to 2014. When all is said and done, an analysis should uncover the cause of the drop.  I was pleased that 108 scholarships were awarded in Drew County this year and 103 were awarded in Ashley County.

Another legislative committee met to discuss ways to increase college graduation rates as we move forward into the next decade. After much discussion and presentations by Mr. Aims McGuinness from the National Center for Higher Education Management and (my friend) Dave Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), it was agreed that effective ways to do this must include setting statewide priorities and direction, increasing access to a college degree, increasing the number of degrees through institutional changes and better managing\cutting costs (cost effectiveness). Now we just have to find ways to successfully do all these things.          

The last topic I’ll discuss again today concerns broadband. This week we were informed and discussed further the invaluable impact broadband is having in the medical field in the state as well as education. We heard about telemedicine and its advantages and these were reiterated at length by representatives of UAMS and others. Broadband was also lauded for its impact upon distance learning, e-link and other uses. This meeting was a precursor to the Connecting Arkansas Internet Conference to be held this Wednesday and Thursday in Little Rock. I will attend all or part of it, according to the rest of my schedule.

I forgot to mention earlier that I have recently been selected to serve on the Community Colleges Commission for SREB (Southern Regional Educational Board). I also have been studying that topic to get myself better informed to represent Arkansas.

Have a great week!

The Advance-Monticellonian

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