Baker knocks 'very poor' GIC rollout

Baker

BOSTON — The Group Insurance Commission's rollout of its state employee health plan consolidation was "very poor," Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday, as House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced a new effort to investigate the decision in the latest sign of mounting pressure on the agency to reconsider.

"I agree with the speaker and with others that the process associated with rolling this thing out has been flawed and I've made clear to the GIC that they need to sit down and talk as soon as possible with the affected parties that are involved in this, because there's a tremendous amount of confusion out there," Baker said Wednesday at a news conference where he detailed his fiscal 2019 budget.

The governor stopped short of calling for the GIC to reconsider its proposal or delay its implementation.

Asked whether it would be possible to have the type of conversation needed to clear the air before Feb. 1 when additional votes are scheduled, Baker said, "I think it better. I think it better."

DeLeo, after hearing a litany of concerns from House Democrats on Tuesday in a private caucus, announced that he would create a special committee headed by Majority Leader Ronald Mariano to review the decision to eliminate three out of six current health plans offering insurance through the GIC.

That move came on the heels of Senate leaders announcing Tuesday evening that they would have an oversight hearing next Wednesday, and Rep. Jim O'Day and Sen. Cindy Friedman said they were exploring legislative options to intervene.

"I'm deeply concerned about the impact that the proposed changes by the GIC will have on the lives of Massachusetts residents and on our economy. The process has been flawed and the policy is questionable: these changes will be very disruptive, while resulting in ambiguous savings," DeLeo said in a statement.

Mariano previously wrote this week to the chair of the GIC, Valerie Sullivan, requesting an explanation for his office, and the entire Legislature, of how the bids from health plans were scored and how the potential savings were calculated.

The GIC voted 8-5 Jan. 18 to contract with three health insurance carriers — UniCare, Neighborhood Health and Health New England — to provide coverage to the nearly 450,000 state workers and retirees.

The change eliminates Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Fallon Community Health and Tufts Health Plan as carriers, and would save the state an estimated $20.8 million next year.

Agency officials said that without the restructuring, health insurance costs for members would have increased by 5 percent next year, and they have tried to assure labor unions and retirees that they will retain access to their current doctors and networks even if they are forced to switch plans.

Many labor officials and some lawmakers have questioned the GIC's claim that all members will be able to keep their doctors, and have blasted the process used to develop the consolidation plan, which included a vote Jan. 18 less, than a day after commissioners had been presented with the details.

The eliminated insurers, all Massachusetts-based companies with significant workforces, are also scrambling to understand how the loss of about 200,000 combined members will impact their bottom lines. "I certainly think they need to take seriously the blowback and the feedback they're getting from a lot of people, because the rollout process on this was flawed and a lot of people were really surprised by this announcement," Baker said.

The governor said he supports the overarching goal of the GIC, which was to reduce the growth in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses without jeopardizing members' access to their doctors. "That's a perfectly noble and respectable objective, but I think the way this has been rolled out has been very poor," Baker said. The governor on Jan. 19 made a similar call for the leadership of the GIC to meet as soon as possible with union leaders and other affected parties.

An invitation from the GIC to at least one union was extended that same day, and a spokeswoman for SEIU Local 509 said union leaders would be happy to meet to "reiterate our outrage," but considered the outreach "too late."

An invitation for Group Insurance Commissioner Roberta Herman to speak next month to another one of the major state employee unions was rescinded Tuesday over the union's outrage at the GIC's handling of the insurance consolidation.

National Association of Government Employees President David Holway wrote a letter to Herman, telling her she was no longer welcome to speak at the union's Feb. 9 "State Joint session" of local chapters.

"We had hoped to have you answer questions of our NAGE leaders and members regarding hard votes that would likely affect the plans and potentially increase costs. However, since the GIC has instead cut the members out of the process by moving forward without hearing their questions and concerns, there is no point in having you address them," Holway wrote in the letter obtained by the News Service.

The reluctance of unions to meet with GIC leadership and the timeline for further votes to solidify the plan could come to a head next week, when the agency has a meeting planned Feb. 1 to finalize benefit designs with the three remaining carriers.

Another vote has been scheduled for Feb. 22 to lock in final rates.

"GIC leadership continues to engage with union leadership and other key stakeholders about how this vote will help ensure members can keep their doctors, hospitals and benefits. This procurement was done to maintain high-quality benefits and doctor choices while saving GIC members and the state money," GIC chief of staff Ashley Maagero Lee said Tuesday.