January 06, 2016

Good news, bad news, repeat

To start on a positive note, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion in particular is shaping up to be a success story in WV. Aside from the fact that around 170,000 West Virginians are covered by Medicaid expansion and another 33,000 have gained coverage via the exchange, now hospitals are reporting huge savings. The Charleston Gazette recently reported that 25 hospitals have reported a $265 million drop in uncompensated care.

On a negative note, changes to food stamp aka SNAP benefits could result in thousands of West Virginians losing them.

On a positive note, my beloved Cabell County Schools is expanding free meals for students. On the other hand, Cabell is also ground zero for substance abuse, with over 900 overdoses reported last year.

Half empty or half full?

January 04, 2016

Different day, different rant, different paper, same old (fill in the blank)

This op-ed of mine about drastic changes to WV's insurance program for public employees ran today in the Gazette-Mail.

If you work for a living in West Virginia AND if you sometimes feel like there’s a target painted on your back these days, there’s at least a little good news: you’re probably not clinically paranoid.

Construction workers and apprentices have been targeted in efforts to repeal the state’s prevailing wage on public construction projects. Last year, some safety measures for underground coal miners were rolled back. Union workers in the private sector — and their non-union counterparts — will take a major hit if the misnamed “right to work” bill gets pushed through.

Next up: public employees and their families.

Around 233,000 West Virginians, or almost 13 percent of the state population, receive health care through the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). This includes eligible state workers, their dependents, and retirees as well as some county and city employees.

We’re talking state troopers, teachers and school service personnel, educators and others in the state college and university system, corrections officers, highway workers, local law enforcement, social service providers, etc.

They are now facing $120 million in “draconian” benefit cuts. These include higher co-pays, out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles and all that. Retirees on fixed incomes could be among those hit the hardest.

(Historical note: Draco, from whom the term “draconian” is derived, was an Athenian lawmaker of the 7th century BC known for his harshness. Under his system, you could get killed for stealing a cabbage. When asked why his laws were so brutal, he said that if he could think of a penalty harsher than death, he’d have used it. But I digress…)

Republican legislative leaders are apparently angry that the PEIA board recommended that the Legislature appropriate money to cushion the blow. Some have tried to shift the blame to the “bad decisions” and “poor management” of the board itself.

That dog, in the parlance of our time, don’t hunt.

Really it seems to come down to basic arithmetic:

•  The number of people covered increases every year (over 3,600 since 2011).

•  Health care inflation has gone up by no less than six percent per year (around $60 million annually some years).

•  The Legislature hasn’t voted to put any additional funding into the system since 2011.

•  Since 2011, PEIA relied on reserves to make up the difference. That’s no longer possible since these are now at their lowest legal minimum.

By law, PEIA premiums are set at 80 percent for the employer and 20 percent for the employee. They can’t legally raise premium rates unless funding is increased to meet that ratio.

One obvious partial solution would be to increase taxes on tobacco products, a measure that has been proposed by the likes of both longtime Republican delegate Frank Deem and Senate Minority Leader (and candidate for governor) Jeff Kessler.

Unlike health care costs, taxes on tobacco haven’t gone up since 2003.

It remains to be seen whether that measure will gain any traction with the leadership in the coming session.

Meanwhile, it’s no wonder that with low pay and lowering benefits it’s going to be hard to get and keep motivated employees.

MetroNews reported in December that there were nearly 600 teacher vacancies in West Virginia. In this time of transition, we need good teachers more than ever. At this rate, though, more and more young and talented teachers will leave the state.

Corrections officers are paid near poverty wages and frequently have to work double shifts with forced overtime in very stressful conditions, a situation that has led to high turnover and hundreds of unfilled vacancies. Those are just two examples.

It’s good to remember that the people who will be affected by these cuts put their lives on the line every day for public safety, pour out all they have to educate our children, keep our cars moving, care for our vulnerable families, and run our public parks and libraries and more. They pay taxes, too. Some have spent their lives in public service and now are fearful of not being able to make ends meet in their elder years.

They deserve better.

January 03, 2016

More on a bad idea

This op-ed of mine against right-to-work-for-less ran in today's Huntington Herald-Dispatch.

One piece of legislation likely to be considered in West Virginia in 2016 is misleadingly called "right to work," or RTW. It really has nothing to do with that right but a lot to do with targeting all working families. It's more like "right to work for less."

According to current law, if most eligible workers in a private-sector job vote to join a union in a National Labor Relations Board election, all belong.

And all benefit from wages, benefits, conditions and representation in grievances that membership provides. RTW would weaken unions and ultimately all workers by allowing some to benefit without contributing.

So why care? Consider the following:

1. RTW undermines labor standards. Union workers are likely to earn living wages and benefits that make for a stable family - benefits like health care, sick days, vacations and pensions. Unions also help set the standards for nonunion employers. This is known as the spillover effect. RTW laws would reduce union membership and ultimately weaken the position of all workers.

2. Unions fought for years for policies we sometimes take for granted, like abolition of child labor, overtime laws, basic safety regulations. Weakening unions makes it easier to undermine these programs and policies.

3. Upper Big Branch is an extreme example of what can happen if unions are taken out of the picture. UBB was originally a union mine. After acquiring it, Massey made promises and the union was decertified. Without a union, workers had little voice about working in unsafe conditions. We know what happened next.

4. RTW undermines the democratic process. If workers want to form a union, they have to win an election, which is often difficult due to intimidation by employers. If they win, the union represents all eligible members, who benefit from collective bargaining. If workers believe the union no longer serves their interests, they have another election to decertify it. RTW short circuits this, allowing people to benefit without paying dues.

5. This creates a free rider problem. The union is obligated to bargain for and represent all eligible employees in grievances. But with RTW, some benefit without contributing. This has the effect of ultimately weakening the union, its bargaining power and the benefits it can gain.

6. If workers object to union political activities, they can become a "Beck objector" (the name comes from a court case). This means they can only pay for the costs associated with their representation.

7. If you look at multiple measures of quality of life, RTW states don't come off very well. A while back, Politico came up with a ranking for 50 states and the District of Columbia, looking at things like income, life expectancy, education and graduation levels, crime etc. Only three of the top 10 were RTW, while all five of the lowest were. RTW states made up nine of the top 25 but 15 of the bottom. While Politico didn't explicitly look at labor laws, this at least suggests that RTW isn't a cure-all.

8. Finally, it comes down to whether we want to take the low road or the high road to West Virginia's future. The low road means weakening labor standards and supporting policies that reduce wages and benefits for working people. A high-road approach would aim at lifting people up and dealing with critical problems like education, workforce development, infrastructure, etc.

This shouldn't be a partisan issue. As the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education put it, "Right-to-work laws limit workers' and employers' freedom of contract. They prevent workers and employers from making mutually beneficial agreements. They don't belong in a free society."