Officials clash over state’s rising health care costs

 

DOVER — The Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday took aim at the state government’s huge health care costs.

Meeting for the first time this year to begin budget deliberations, several lawmakers expressed displeasure with the executive branch’s recent proposal to raise premiums and lock future state employees into one health care plan.

Employee medical care is skyrocketing in cost and unions and some legislators disagree with Gov. Jack Markell over the solution.

JFC Chairman Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, said the state is “outgunned by the hospital profession” and providers are charging for care several times what the cost should be.

“They’re not charging us what they believe is the correct bill,” he said. “They’re charging us what they believe they can make us pay, and I think there’s a wide gulf between those two.”

He supports revamping the system, opening up a request for proposals that would place a smaller burden on the state.

But Ann Visalli, director of the state’s Office of Management and Budget, said while she is in favor of continuing to negotiate with hospitals it is not possible to do a major overhaul in time for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“I’m not going to gamble with the employees’ health fund,” she said.

In addition to the proposed changes, the legislature needs to allocate $33.3 million for fiscal year 2017, she said. She described that amount as the minimum needed to ensure the state can pay for health care.

She also disputed Sen. McDowell’s allegation of hospitals charging inflated prices.

“I don’t think that’s accurate, but we can go back to this,” she said.

“My terminology, I’ll give you that,” Sen. McDowell responded, to which she replied, “Paraphrasing your own recollection of history there, but OK.”

Despite the brief exchange the two agreed on the need to keep working on changing how the state pays for health care. That would include shifting to a value-based model.

A few other lawmakers also raised doubts about the governor’s plan. Rep. Joseph Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, said the higher premiums would basically offset the pay raise also proposed by Gov. Markell. State employees paid less than $50,000 would get a flat $500 increase while those being paid more would receive a 1 percent hike.

Ms. Visalli disagreed with his assessment. Employees with the most expensive health care plan would pay about $234 more per year, meaning most — if not all — employees would come out ahead.

Some people also called for aid for pensioners, with two public speakers urging the committee to avoid raising costs for retirees.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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