Some days are better than others. Today was a better day. Theresa Luna came to the Senate Commerce Committee to present the "group insurance" rules of Mike Gwartney's Department of Administration. Someone had foolishly mixed part time state employee health benefits issues in with the rules dealing with the effects of Otter's cutting/privatizing state retiree benefits last year.
So the committee was suspicious. The media came. We asked questions:
1) I asked whether having even a small percentage of part time employees fall off of state health insurance could cause the state to lose all of its projected budget savings — because, if even a tiny percentage of the newly uninsured part time employees faced cancer and spent every resource they had thus ending up on the county indigent fund, then the state would have to pay for their health care anyway — not just $200 more in insurance premiums — but the medical bills themselves — potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per person.
ANSWER: that kind of consequence had not been calculated into the fiscal impact.
2) Senator Cameron asked if, as Ms. Luna told us, the rule we had before us today was NOT Director Gwartney's rule dealing with the roughly $200 increase in premiums for part time state employees — then where was that rule and when would we hear it?
ANSWER: there will be no rule. Director Gwartney feels he has the authority to make major changes in the benefits of over 2500 state employees without any form of approval from the legislature.
Needless to say Director Gwartney has not made himself popular with the legislature and his department telling legislators to mind their own beeswax did not go over well. Senator Stegner pondered whether our holding the rule in committee might spur the Director to come in and explain himself to us.
Motions were made and seconded and indeed we held the set of rules ransom. We will consider passing them only after the Director has shown us where the authority lies for him to singlehandedly cut part time employee benefits in this way. I look forward to it.
These rules and this issue could have passed quietly over this session while men and women around the state sat over kitchen tables calculating whether the wages their part time jobs earn would pay for their benefits. Many couples have lost private sector jobs and the benefits the state employee in the family has been given have become a life line. Men and Women grappling with cancer like Senator Stennett and probably Representatives Collins and Marriot surely hold their breath knowing that the health care they get is a thin line between them and disaster.
And yet Director Gwartney with the stroke of a pen takes these things away.
He robs families of policies established by a legislature that knows the value of paying benefits to make palatable the lesser wages of part time work. To me it seems more than anything not about the budget but about cruelty, about demonizing government, most of all demonizing sensible government that recognizes we live in a world that increasingly leaves people vulnerable, teetering at the edge of ruin because they have no insurance, no access to care that won't bankrupt them should they ever get seriously ill.
Today was a good day and perhaps other good days will come when lawmakers who have grow tired of unilateral action will finally use the law to reign in the man with the flowing white hair.