Some State Workers Don't See Health Cuts Coming

By: Brittany Davis, Health News Florida; La"Tasha Givens
By: Brittany Davis, Health News Florida; La"Tasha Givens

UPDATE

More than a thousand Florida Department of Health workers could soon be out of a job.

The Department has proposed a sweeping plan to reorganize --- and shrink -- its operations.

Eyewitness News reporter La'Tasha Givens has more on this 'spring cleaning' proposal.

"I just got finished with nursing school so ya know I thought my future was bright."

Claytonia Garrett is studying for state board examines scheduled for next month.

"I went in to nursing because I care, I'm a very caring person. I just have a heart to take care of people."

But she's now concerned about the job outlook, and that concern is being heightened for many Department of Health workers right now.

Michelle Dahnkey, DOH spokesperson, says, "The department on March 1st released our evaluation justification review in compliance with last year's House Bill 5311 that was passed. It asked us to look at the department's functions and asses them."

Some of the recommendations are to: eliminate 1608 department positions condense 50 bureaus into 18 and combine 11 divisions to 6.

Department officials say these cuts, along with other changes, is expected to save the state 22.3 million dollars.

"I definitely hope that they either find more funding or they figure out a way around the budget cuts."

"We would like to be reassuring we would like to let people know again this is just the beginning, that this is just a recommendation, we still need to get through the legislative session which starts next week and have those conversations with the legislature."

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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 1, 2011 --

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a deep cut in state workers' health benefits -- $7,000 a year for the most popular family plan -- but many state workers seem unaware of it.

Health News Florida discovered that while trying to gather opinions about the proposal.

"No ma'am, I haven't heard of that," said Heather Brown, an administrative secretary at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Sue Bruce, a personal secretary at the Florida State Courts, said: "I don't know much about what goes on across the state."

"I'm vaguely familiar," said John Tupps, information specialist at the Governor's Office.

On Feb. 7, Scott proposed that the state cap its contribution to employee health insurance at $5,000, whether the worker needs coverage for one person or a family of 10. If approved by the Legislature, the proposal would wallop the many state employees who have family plans that cost $14,000 or more a year.

Scott proposed it at the same time he announced he wants to require state workers to contribute 5 percent of their pay to their pension plans and during the same month that he visited state agencies to talk about massive layoffs. Those two subjects captured all the headlines.

So the gravity of the proposed health-insurance cut -- or even the fact that it has been suggested -- did not reach 11 out of 16 state employees HNF called Monday.

"There's probably not a single person in this office who knows anything about this proposal," said Steve Murray, communications director at the Department of Veteran's Affairs. "This just hasn't been a large part of the media coverage coming from Tallahassee."

The proposed cap, which would not take effect until 2013, is aimed at holding down the state's future health-care costs. During the 2009-10 fiscal year, the state spent nearly $1.8 billion on health benefits for 375,000 workers, retirees and family members.

But the proposal also fits neatly into Scott's political philosophy, in reducing the cost of government and shaping benefits to look more like those in the private sector.

The $5,000 contribution would apply to all -- not just young, single workers, but also to older workers and those with families. Now the state pays an average for family coverage of $12,000 per worker, so the $5,000 cap would save the state about $7,000 per employee.

The state pays about $6,000 for each single worker's coverage.

The change may push many employees into high-deductible plans combined with what are known as "health savings accounts,'' in which employees put aside part of their pre-tax earnings to save for medical needs in the future. Such plans give workers an incentive to shop for bargains in health care -- since whatever they don't spend they can keep. But if employers don't contribute to the savings account, some critics say, workers don't put enough money in to meet real needs.

The state already offers this option, but almost no employees use it.

During the 2009-10 fiscal year, when about 177,000 employees and retirees were in the state insurance system, only 1,334 chose the high-deductible plans with health-savings accounts, according to information presented to a legislative committee.

Those who participate in the high-deductible package receive upfront savings on their premiums. A rank-and-file worker who has single coverage pays $15 a month, compared to $50 a month in the standard insurance plans. A similar employee with family coverage pays $64.30 a month for the high-deductible package, compared to $180 a month for standard coverage.

The proposal mirrors the private sector shift from providing that specific items be covered -- "defined benefit plans" -- to fixed-dollar amounts that employees choose how to spend -- "defined contribution plans."

The downside to these plans, critics say, is that patients can get stuck with high bills if they encounter a serious illness before their savings mount enough to cover them.


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