Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Surprise! Affordable Care Act is working; Dead Man on Campus; Construction projects may be blocked; and State employees, retirees to sue over benefit changes


Surprise! Affordable Care Act is working

Despite years of opponents saying the Affordable Care Act–often referred to as Obamacare–would tank the insurance market and was anything but affordable, new data shows that enrollment in Louisiana is up 50 percent from last year and tax credits are keeping premiums down, reducing monthly costs by 75 percent. Bruce Alpert with Nola.com reports:


In Louisiana, the Department of Health and Human Services said 148,552 individuals signed up for coverage through the federal Marketplace as of Jan. 30, and 89 percent qualified for subsidy, averaging $322 per person/per month in premium tax credits.  On average, premium tax credits reduced Louisiana consumers’ monthly premiums by 75 percent, the agency said. According to www.healthsherpa.com, a private operated insurance broker that can sign people up for Affordable Care Act health coverage, the average monthly premium cost for Louisiana residents signing up in 2015 is $107 per month.


The deadline to sign up and receive a tax credit is this Sunday, February 15.


Dead Man on Campus

Anxiety. Concern. Uncertainty. Those are some of the words The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp uses to describe the mood of professors, administrators and students at Louisiana’s colleges and universities as the brace for the Jindal administration to unveil a budget proposal on Feb. 27 that could include a cut of up to $400 million in state support for higher education.


The cuts — anticipated for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — would come on the heels of already deep cuts made in recent years — among the steepest in the nation. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Louisiana’s per student higher ed funding has fallen more than any other state since 2008. During the recent LSU board meeting, LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander gave an impassioned speech — detailing the threat with campuses facing 40 percent reductions in state funding. It would mean cutting back thousands of course offerings, laying off faculty, mass declarations of campus financial exigency and, ultimately, graduating fewer students, he said. “All of these good things we’ve been talking about — all of them end and we go on life support,” he said.


The Advocate’s editorial board seconds the Chancellor’s concerns, pointing the finger at the Jindal administration’s repeated use of one-time money to patch together the budget and aversion to considering closing wasteful tax loopholes to save higher education.


Construction projects may be blocked

Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics, writing in the Shreveport Times, sheds some light on Louisiana’s “other” big budget–the capital outlay budget, which funds construction projects.


University dorms, hospital elevators and flood walls are packed in there right alongside less urgent needs like a new headquarters for a local junior league, a community center for a lawmaker’s high school alumni group and grounds improvements for a parish fair (actual projects from the 2014 bill).


The budget piñata is eventually cracked open, with the honor falling to the governor. Like his predecessors, Gov. Bobby Jindal gets to decide which lawmakers get their goodies from the papier-mache pelican…If a lawmaker’s project ends up on the agenda, they win.


Alford reports that changes to capital outlay could be part of the budget solution this year, though it will be an uphill battle with legislators eager to bring home new projects in an election year.


Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who oversees the committee where the bill begins its journey, has suggested blocking all new projects this year. That would save the state some $60 million during the next fiscal year on debt services. He’s also thinking about limiting funding to only the most vital of ongoing projects.


State employees, retirees to sue over benefit changes

The Jindal administration’s months-long effort to slash employee and retiree health benefits while raising premiums may hit another potential roadblock. A group of employees and retirees are raising money to fund a legal challenge to the plan changes, contending that the Division of Administration violated the law in implementing new rules. The Advocate reports:


The law…is known as the Administrative Procedures Act. The act sets out an approval process including publication of the changes, public hearings, opportunity for written comment and legislative hearings. Group Benefits originally proceeded with benefit plan structure changes without going through the process and initially claimed it was not required. Responding to a request by state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, for a legal interpretation the attorney general opined that the Jindal administration did not meet the legal requirement to implement the changes. The attorney general also said rules unlawfully adopted are invalid and unenforceable.


A few years ago, the employee health plan had a reserve account of $500 million. But that balance plummeted as the Jindal administration cut premiums to free up money to balance the state budget. Now, with the health plan running a monthly deficit, employees and retirees are being asked to pay more for less.


Number of the Day

Average monthly premium for health insurance bought with tax credits available through the Affordable Care Act. Nine out of 10 consumers qualified for a tax credit (Source: Nola.com)