Teachers voice concerns about PEIA at public hearing

14 Feb

Teachers from across the state voiced their support of affordable health insurance at a public hearing on Tuesday evening.

Hosted by the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board, 28 people spoke during the hearing, which was held at the WVU Erickson Alumni Center.

All 28 speakers expressed concerns of changes in PEIA, a health plan given to public employees. These changes would have raised premiums for teachers and other public employees by 5 percent. Under the original 2019 PEIA financial plan, premiums would have also been determined by total family income.

With the rising premium costs, teachers across the state picketed and threatened to go on strike. To calm the storm, Governor Jim Justice proposed to freeze PEIA for the next 17 months.

“To us, this freeze doesn’t fix anything,” said Sarah Lough, a middle school teacher in Lewis County, during the hearing. “We barely get by now [with PEIA].”

According to Lough, public employees like her regularly have to skip going to the doctor because of expenses. Making PEIA more expensive would worsen this problem.

Sarah Lough speaking at the public hearing.

Sarah Lough speaking at the public hearing.

Lough said that several months ago, she cut her finger while cutting carrots. Instead of getting stitches, she wrapped the wound with electrical tape.

“I simply told my husband we couldn’t afford to go [to the hospital],” Lough said.

Lough, who has been teaching since 2004, said she was heavily considering leaving her teaching job for something more profitable.

Lough, along with other speakers, said that the 2019 PEIA financial plan’s original use of Go365 was an invasion of privacy.

With Go365, public employees earn points by monitoring and improving their health through a phone app.

Those who didn’t earn enough points could have been forced to pay a $500 penalty deductible.

Lough said this program told her that she needed to lose 13 pounds and that her waist size had to be smaller.

“I simply sobbed because that’s apparently my worth,” Lough said during the hearing.

Since other state employees who receive PEIA aren’t able to picket or protest , like state troopers, correctional officers and Department of Highway employees, some teachers took the reins to represent them.

“My partner is a state trooper,” said Shelley Garlitz, a Mountaineer Middle School teacher, during an interview. “He’s counting on all of us.”

Signs brought into the meeting by Shelley Garlitz.

Signs brought into the meeting by Shelley Garlitz.

Garlitz said she would have to pay $3,000 more annually if the PEIA changes went through.

Despite the PEIA Finance Board hosting three public hearings in the same number of days, PEIA Director Ted Cheatham said multiple times during the hearing that the decisions about PEIA were decided by Governor Jim Justice and state legislators.

Cheatham said Justice designated $29 million to keep PEIA frozen for the next 17 months.

“There’s no certainty what happens the year after,” he said.

One of the only definite things said by Cheatham was that premiums based on total family income were no longer on the table.

“We do listen to [the teachers'] concerns,” said Cheatham.

Though, it’s the governor and the legislators that designate money for PEIA.

For PEIA to be affordable, they have to listen.

Laura Lee Modesitt speaking at the public hearing.

Laura Lee Modesitt speaking at the public hearing.

Laura Lee Modesitt, a Doddridge High School teacher who attended the hearing, described herself as “heart-broken” when a Republican representing her county in the state legislature voted against a bill that would have helped teachers.

Currently in the legislature, a bill recently passed by the House of Delegate would raise teacher pay by 2 percent.

This is not enough, especially with the rising cost of PEIA.

Teachers at the hearing agreed that those in the government have to vote for them and advocate for them. If not, they have to be voted out of office.

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