Workers lament cuts


CARSON CITY -- Lalo Macias wonders why anyone these days could be happy working for state government.

"They are taking unpaid furlough days, taking salary cuts, being asked to do extra work, and now they are reducing health care benefits for them and their families," Macias, acting director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 4041, said Monday.

"State workers are very pissed off. We have to do something to help them," he said.

Macias said he has received a lot of angry e-mail from state workers upset with Thursday's decision of the Public Employees' Benefits Program Board to cut benefits to 70,000 current and retired state employees and their dependents.

The decision will affect university system workers but not public school teachers or any other public employees in Clark County.

About $81 million will be saved through reductions in benefits to employees. Another $30 million will be saved by increasing costs of what workers pay for health care, officials said.

But how much more the employees will pay has not yet been figured out. It costs about $500 million a year to run the health care program.

The state now pays $680 a month to provide health care for each worker. That is much higher than costs paid by private industry.

In a June report, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported private industry on the average pays the equivalent of $2.08 per hour to provide health care for each worker. For an employee working 184 hours in a month, that would be $383.

Individual Nevada state workers pay $45 a month for health care, $278 a month to cover themselves and a spouse.

None of the changes will go into effect until July. The Legislature, which meets in February, is expected to be asked to come up with funds to reduce the impact on state employees and their families.

"With the state facing a potential $3 billion shortfall, I don't see how we can come up with any money to help with health care," said Assemblyman James Settelmeyer, R-Garderville.

Settelmeyer, who is running for a state Senate district that includes Carson City, which has a large percentage of state workers, said he wished he had better news for state workers but doesn't want to make false promises. He said that his personal health insurance went up 35 percent and that he was forced to increased his deductible and copayment.

Some legislators participate in the state program and face the same health care cuts as state workers, as will the next governor and other state constitutional officers.

Jim Wells, the executive officer for the state health care program, said Nevada is hardly the only state where benefits are being reduced for state workers. California, New Jersey, South Carolina and New Jersey have cut or are considering reducing state worker medical care benefits.

But Macias said he is looking at the Legislature to find a way to reduce the extra financial burden on state workers. His group also is researching how to change the health care program without burdening employees.

"This is not fair," he said. "They are working with skeleton crews, and now they (state officials) want to cut their benefits. If you cut their benefits, and cut $3 billion in spending, you say goodbye to everything."

In their disgust over the coming health care cuts, state employees and their families blame just about everyone .

Sandra, the spouse of a retired state worker, put the blame on U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is seeking re-election, and the Democrats as she walked her dog Monday in a Carson City park.

"The Democrats have wrecked our state," said Sandra, who declined to elaborate or give her last name. "I blame Harry Reid for just about everything. I have no use for government in general."

As a retired worker, her husband receives $340 a month for supplemental insurance to cover what Medicare does not pay. Under the new plan, retired workers will receive no more than $200 a month for supplemental coverage and will have to secure such insurance through private companies. Now the public employee benefits program administers the supplemental program for retirees.

Emmy Massey, a Carson City woman whose father is a retired state worker, blames the health care program itself for contributing to the shortfall. She said that in past years, workers were permitted to get cosmetic surgery at state expense. Many did and that ran up the costs of the program, she said.

"They ran the program into the ground," added Massey, who worries her father, a cancer survivor, will not be able to afford care with the coming cuts.

Michelle Lehmann, the wife of a Carson City doctor, said not only workers but also physicians will be hurt .

She said two state employees already have canceled appointments with her husband, though the reductions will not come for another 11 months.

"They wanted to prove a point, I guess," Lehmann said. "I imagine there will be fewer people going to doctors because their out-of-pocket expenses will be higher. It is hard times. Health care is a luxury these days. People should be thankful they have jobs."

Under the cuts approved by the benefits program board, the deductible before health care benefits are paid will be increased from $800 to $2,000. Vision and dental care benefits will be reduced. No longer will eyeglasses be given for free to employees and their dependents.

Increasing the deductible to $2,000 will cut her out of health care, said Clair, a state employee in Las Vegas.

"That is more than I can pay on top of losing a day's pay a month," said Clair, who said she earns $46,000 a year. "I am a single woman. There are a lot of single women with children working for Nevada who earn $10 an hour. We need to speak out, or we are going to get screwed over and over again. "

Clair said she would not give her last name out of fear of retaliation from her supervisors.

Wells said the board had to find a way to cover a $111 million shortfall because they were told by the state budget office that spending for employee health care would not be increased in the 2011-13 budget period.

Macias accused Gov. Jim Gibbons of forcing the benefits program board to approve the cuts, but Gibbons spokesman Daniel Burns said: "They have a responsibility to make ends meet. Medical costs are going up, and the Obama health care law costs money, and the economy is not in good shape in Nevada. State employees are facing another hardship. It is the reality of the times we live in."

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

 

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