THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 7, 2011 --
Still grappling with health-insurance costs, the Florida Senate on Wednesday decided rank-and-file employees should escape a large increase in premiums next year --- but could see their benefits trimmed.
Also, the Senate scrapped a controversial plan to privatize a state mental hospital in Baker County, handing a victory to workers and community leaders worried about a for-profit company running the facility.
The insurance decision came after Senate leaders proposed changes last week that could have forced tens of thousands of employees to swallow premium increases of $1,100 a year or more for family coverage.
Senators scaled that back dramatically Wednesday, approving a budget amendment that includes a $20-a-month premium increase for family coverage and no increase for individuals.
The amendment, however, would still lead to substantial increases for appointed workers and lawmakers, who have paid little in recent years for coverage. They would start being treated the same as rank-and-file employees --- meaning an appointed worker with family coverage could see costs jump from $360 a year to $2,400.
At the same time, Senate leaders want the state to negotiate revamped insurance-benefit packages to help restrain costs. It is too early to know what those packages would include, but benefits could be reduced.
Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the insurance program will cost about $2 billion next year, up about $170 million from this year. He said "there is no free lunch.''
"I think this is a simple, direct approach that says we will live within our means,'' Alexander said.
Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, whose Tallahassee-area district is filled with state workers, said the proposal is "promising," compared to the earlier versions.
"I believe we can protect the taxpayers, and I think we can get a reasonably good deal for employees,'' he said.
Montford, however, said he remains concerned about increasing insurance premiums at the same time that lawmakers are looking at requiring employees to start paying into the state pension fund.
"The question to me is, how much can we expect them to absorb quickly?" he said.
The Senate approved the amendment as it prepared to vote Thursday on a budget proposal for the 2011-12 fiscal year. The House also is expected to vote on its version of the budget, setting the stage for negotiations in the coming weeks on a final spending plan.
Employee health insurance likely will be an issue in those negotiations, as the House has not proposed the same changes as the Senate. The Senate proposal would take effect Jan. 1.
Currently, individual rank-and-file employees pay $600 a year for insurance, while family coverage costs $2,160. That family cost would increase to $2,400 under the Senate bill.
Appointed officials and lawmakers pay $100 a year for individual coverage, which would increase to $600 in the Senate proposal.
During an all-day session, senators also approved a budget amendment that eliminated a proposal to privatize the Northeast Florida State Hospital in the Baker County community of Macclenny.
The original version of the Senate budget called for contracting with a private company or a local government to run the facility --- though it left open the possibility that workers could form a non-profit firm to try to compete for the contract.
Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican whose sprawling rural district includes the hospital, said the facility will face budget cuts in exchange for the state continuing to run it. While the cuts would not be the same throughout the 633-bed hospital, a civil-commitment program could see cuts as high as 10 percent.
Privatization opponents have feared, at least in part, that turning the hospital over to a contractor would lead to reduced employee benefits. Dean said the hospital has 1,186 employees, which makes it a huge part of the local economy.
Dean, who also has fended off past privatization attempts, asked other senators to "give my little hospital a chance.''