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A Times Editorial

Perk for few as millions do without

For years, the Republicans in charge in Tallahassee have pledged to save tax dollars by making government act more like business. Now it looks like those leaders may be guilty of the same sense of entitlement that has led to outsized perks for corporate titans — and higher costs for taxpayers.

Florida is one of only seven states that still covers the entire health insurance premium for its elected officials and some state employees. The state shed the perk years ago for most employees when it realized, as most private employers have, that it couldn't keep absorbing double-digit increases. It's time for the Legislature to shed this double standard or risk losing all credibility on health care matters.

As the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported earlier this week, tax dollars pay the entire insurance premium for at least 27,479 state employees and their families — including the 160 members of the Legislature, the governor and Cabinet officers. At least 2,431 of the recipients earn more than $100,000.

Lawmakers funded this significant perk again this year even as they struck billions in spending from the state budget. And they're benefitting from taxpayer largesse even as many Republican members have repeatedly denounced President Barack Obama's efforts to expand health insurance coverage — including calling for the state to opt out of any eventual federal legislation or withdraw from Medicaid.

Gov. Charlie Crist said there's no contradiction between the party's position on health care reform and his premium-free health insurance. He says it's "part of the compensation package for public servants." Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, a University of Florida lecturer who is in line to be the next Senate president, argued it's not free: Recipients still must pay deductibles and co-payments. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a candidate for governor, said she is hesitant to scale back any benefit at a time when state employees have endured wage freezes.

But all three leaders are out of touch with average Floridians and their employers, who have struggled for years with double-digit increases in premiums, plus increases in co-pays and deductibles — and had no pot of taxpayer money to bail them out. Now 25 percent of Floridians under 65 don't have health insurance at all. And other Floridians are struggling with lost jobs or cut wages even as health care costs rise again. Yet when they pay sales tax, they're contributing to state employees' generous plans.

About 100,000 other state employees do pay annual insurance premiums. The cost — $600 for an individual and $2,160 for a family — is roughly half the average cost for private sector workers who buy insurance through their employer.

Only one Republican, Attorney General Bill McCollum — who opts for coverage under a plan for former members of Congress in which he pays part of the premium — was willing to state the obvious: All health plan participants should be contributing to their premiums like the vast majority of private sector employees.

Run government like a business, Republicans promised. That's the least they could do when it comes to health insurance.

Perk for few as millions do without 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 9:04pm]

    

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