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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Hike in Public Sector Local and County Worker Health Care Costs is Unconscionable

By Herald Staff

New Jersey all too frequently allows public policy to be driven by factors having little to do with professed concerns for the public benefit. Sure, that’s politics everywhere. But the Garden State’s mendacity can at times be breathtaking.  

Three years ago, Governor Phil Murphy lauded a decrease in public sector health care premiums as the result of his administration’s reforms. Part of these included a new multi-year contract with Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield for providing health care benefits for public employees. We were promised hundreds of millions in savings and a lessening of the burden on local taxpayers.  

We realize that political statements are meant for the moment in which they are made. Few of us are so naïve as to believe all that they promise will come to pass. But we must pause in amazement when confronted three years later with the recent vote of the State Health Benefits Commission to raise the cost of health care for county and local workers by 21% in one year. Make no mistake, this commission would not have voted as it did if the Governor were opposed to the hike.  

On that same day we get an announcement of a compromise between the state and five public sector worker unions that greatly eases the burden for state employees while ignoring local plans completely.  

The New Jersey State Health Benefits Plan covers local institutions as varied as fire districts, municipal governments, and school districts. The New Jersey Association of Counties and the New Jersey League of Municipalities have both shouted into the wind with dire predictions of what such a hike could mean for local workers and taxpayers. The New Jersey School Board Association has argued it will force dollars from the classroom to the insurers.  

None of it appears to matter. In New Jersey, when in doubt about how to pay for something make it local and add it to the property tax. The same state administration that could not find enough microphones when it wanted to tout what Murphy called in 2019 “its dogged pursuit to lower the cost of health care” now is silent as municipal governments start to construct their 2023 budgets.  

At the Health Benefits Commission meeting that approved the hikes, chair Danielle Schimmel of the Treasury Department noted that “Horizon has provided all the info for the rate setting process.” No representative of Horizon was at the meeting. No need. The obvious purpose was not discussion but authorization.  

State officials did identify a culprit in this drastic hike in costs – COVID-19. We are told the pandemic both increased expensive care for some and produced a backlog of routine care that was postponed during for many months.  

If true that begs another question. Instead of adding to the burden of local municipal property taxpayers why didn’t the Governor use some of the federal pandemic relief funds the state has piled up out of reach? If we are dealing with a backlog that will dissipate itself over a relatively short time or the costs of COVID-19 treatment at a time when hospitalizations for the virus are falling, why impose such a hike in one huge blow?  

Could it be that the reforms so hyped before the pandemic have not resulted in the structural changes expected? If the hikes are anomalous and directly related to the coronavirus, why are they out of all proportion to what is happening in other states? Why is New Jersey once again the outlier?  

When some state officials tried to recoup $34 million from Horizon for failure to deliver on promised savings, the Governor intervened, and the effort stopped. Why? Perhaps for good reason, but if so why not share that reason with the public? 

Murphy has previously established an Office of Health Care Affordability and Transparency. Does anything about this rate hike for county and local entities appear affordable or transparent?  

We have two priorities here: 

County and local municipal agencies are going to need help. They cannot possibly be expected to absorb this kind of increase in their budgets. The state has already made its deal with its own employees. Property taxpayers cannot be left to shoulder the burden of the increase for those who don’t work directly for the state. What’s the plan Governor?  

Additionally, health care costs for the state health benefits plan need careful analysis by a commission responsible to the public and with the results available to the public. There is no reason to assume that New Jersey must always be an outlier among her sister states. The drivers of costs in the Garden State are not fundamentally different than they are elsewhere. The commission to transparently study this mess for the public’s benefit needs to be appointed now. 

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From the Bible:  Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and truth. 1 John 3:18 

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