Few private employees enjoy free health insurance anymore. They shoulder the cost of premiums right alongside their employer. But that's not true for some state employees, particularly those at the upper echelons of pay and power. As Florida lawmakers look for a way to balance the state's budget — including proposals to cut employee pay — a more just idea would be to look at curbing outdated health insurance benefits for those at the top.
More than 26,000 state workers pay no portion of their health insurance premiums, costing the state an estimated $44 million more than if those employees were charged the same premiums as other state workers.
Lawmakers and their staff, appointed officials, agency heads and the state's senior managers contribute not a dime to insurance premiums, even for family coverage. The largesse goes even further for lawmakers and legislative staff, who also pay nothing toward premiums for life insurance policies or dental insurance, while the bulk of state workers do. Meanwhile, a proportion of the state's lower-paid workers, including its secretaries and janitors, have to pay a monthly premium of $50 for individual coverage and $180 for family coverage. But many of their bosses don't pay the same bill.
Defenders of the system say the benefit helps retain quality workers for top jobs despite sometimes lower pay than the private sector. They also note that most state employees haven't seen a pay increase for two years. And it should be noted that all users of the state's health insurance are subject to co-payments when they go to the doctor.
But there is a fundamental unfairness in burdening the workers who can least afford it with health insurance premiums — but not the state's best-paid employees. For sure, state legislators aren't among the highly paid: They earn just $33,000 for the so-called part-time offices. But providing themselves and their families such gold-plated benefits while contemplating pay cuts for all state workers sends the wrong message to taxpayers.
At a time of shrinking state revenues, there needs to be some recognition of the realities of the health insurance market. Rising costs have made health insurance a big-ticket item for employers and their workers. That is why few private sector workers today enjoy "no premium" health benefits. From 2002 to 2005, a worker's average out-of-pocket premium for employer-sponsored health insurance increased by 34.4 percent, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Private sector workers across Florida are absorbing these additional costs and seeing their paychecks shrink accordingly. So should legislators and top state employees.
The public sector, especially in these tight times, should not be insulated from the health insurance challenges the rest of us face. As lawmakers look for places to make budget cuts, the state's "no premium" health insurance benefit deserves a hard look.