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State Employees Health Plan launches a new board of directors, explores wellness plans and other initiatives.
By Saja Hindi
The new Board of Trustees for the State Health Plan may have their work cut out for them, but members are beginning to address challenges and new initiatives that lay ahead. The State Health Plan is the health insurance plan covering more than 650,000 state employees, teachers, retirees and their families.
The board — which formed after the plan was moved to the state treasurer’s office at the beginning of this year — met for the second time last week and many of the members are in attendance today at a health care symposium at N.C. State University.
State treasurer Janet Cowell is only taking a few issues to the Legislature during the short session. She said in a four-week Legislative session, the focus will be more toward the “quit-hit technical.”
Cowell said the board is working through adjustments to bring the State Health Plan into compliance with federal law. The new board is looking at controlling costs, some other long standing problems with the health plan, and some new initiatives.
“A lot of this is background for future decisions,” Cowell said.”There’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of interest groups.”
Kim Hargett, a physical education teacher at Marshville Elementary School in Union County, and now board member, said she’s really excited about the possibilities.
“We’ve got a board that’s very diverse,” Hargett said. “We all come from different vantage points, which I think it going to be really helpful and beneficial as we’re trying to devise a plan that takes care of our people that are taking care of North Carolina.
Hargett said the board seems to be willing to be a little creative and step outside the box to try new ideas, which is what it will take to make the health plan a success.
The one policy the board did adopt at this month’s meeting was an increase in premiums for everyone in family plans, as well as for employees and retirees who choose the 80/20 plan. This year’s projected premium increase is 5.3 percent — that’s on par with national averages and less than increases have been in the past few years.
“The board realizes any increase in money is out of someone’s pocket and that’s a serious decision,” Cowell said.
But that’s something the General Assembly had put in the budget and so the board adopted it, which Cowell said seemed to be the best approach.
“I think you’ll see bigger decisions being made in 2013. I think they’ll look at the strategic planning session, they’ll look at different scenarios,” she said. “My sense is even after …I don’t think they’ll completely redesign everything.”
The good news is the board is already seeing some changes from the past — the ending cash balance forecast is up, whereas in the past, the plan was chronically short of funds.
Hargett said the challenge is going to be really taking initiatives to the Legislature that are going to be reasonable for both the State Employees Health Plan as well as financially for the General Assembly.
But Hargett said she’s been so impressed with the State Health Plan staff as well as her fellow board members and said she feels they have what it takes to come up with good designs.
“We’ve got to look at what we want. We don’t want pre-emptive surrender,” Hargett joked.
One of the points of discussion at the March board meeting – and one that seems to be garnering more interest from employees as well – is the state’s wellness initiatives, incentives and disincentives. The program the state had in place in 2009 was not a hit among employees and the board is looking at what other states are doing and trying to come up with new ideas.
“We did our listening session around the state to hear from members,” Cowell said.
According to Cowell, they are looking for more care beforehand for their employees and less fix.
At today’s forum, board members will have the chance to interact with health economists and people from other states who have implemented these types of wellness programs.
Hargett said any new wellness initiatives will take a big educational push from the board members.
“We are in the midst of a paradigm shift …as far as an awareness of being healthy, getting some exercise, eating well,” she said.
The old proverbial carrot, instead of the stick, Hargett said, is most likely the way to go.
“If we can give them more choices, they know from the get-go — they know their history, they know what they’re likely to do and what they’re not likely to do. They can choose the plan that fits them and their family the best,” she said.
Cowell said Rhode Island, for example, is a heavily unionized state that has a lot of penalties in their wellness program, and a disincentives program, so she’s interested in seeing how that’s implemented.
“I think at this point, everything is on the table, but obviously incentives is clearly where people are going to look first,” Cowell said.
And for Hargett, wellness programs are not only important for individuals in the long run but for the state.
“That will be a benefit for the citizens of North Carolina,” she said. “If you look at who it covers, it’s really the people helping run the state.”