As legislators, it is important for us to be very deliberate in our duty to serve the people of New Hampshire in a responsible and informed way. It is incumbent upon us to reach out, listen, and learn from our constituents. They can offer important perspectives and insights into the decisions we make in Concord and how those decisions impact them in their daily lives.
I wanted to share with you an excerpt from an email I received from a retired state employee regarding the changes we had to make to retiree health care because of a shortfall: "You have made my life, in some ways easier. Effective 2016, I will no longer have to wrestle with trying to figure out which medical tests to take and which ones to let go. You have uncomplicated my decision. Starting next year, I can't afford to take any of them. As these tests include blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid and other serious medical problems that I suffer from and should be tested every year..."
After several emails back and forth with the retiree, we agreed a meeting would be helpful. With the retiree's permission, I invited the commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services (who had been involved in changes made to retiree health) to join us. It is just as important that our state officials be involved in the communication process, so I was pleased the commissioner agreed to attend.
As background, the state employee retiree health care plan was funded in the FY16/17 budget with an appropriation of $142,699,754 for 12,011 retirees. Some time after the budget passed, higher than anticipated pharmacy costs and a reduction in the federal subsidy for the Medicare prescription drug program (due to the Affordable Care Act) resulted in an increase in the cost of retiree health. Facing a $10.6 million deficit, the Department of Administrative Services needed to come up with a solution to address this shortfall.
Legislators and state officials reviewed many options. We listened to lobbyists who represented the retirees and talked directly with retirees that would be impacted by the decision that faced us as a result of higher drug prices and the reduced federal subsidy. In the end, we agreed to a plan that we felt was fiscally responsible and reduced some of the burden on retirees. We did this by using the surplus in the retiree health benefits account to fund some of the cuts that were proposed. To address the balance of the shortfall, prescription drug benefit co-pays and maximum out-of-pocket expenses were increased, and some plan design changes were made.
So on a chilly winter afternoon, we met with this retired state employee to hear her concerns. At her kitchen table, where she had made coffee and sandwiches for us, she pulled out her bills. She showed us a very detailed notebook where she had carefully and methodically written down every expense she had and compared it to the income she was receiving. It was clear she was struggling with daily living expenses and trying to live within her means.
Together, we discovered that there were tests and medical supplies that she wasn't aware she was eligible for. The commissioner also explained that by making some changes in her health care plan, including Medicare, her monthly health care costs could be less. This very important conversation allowed us to realize there were some communication gaps relative to retiree benefits that we (Concord) needed to address.
After listening to the retiree's concerns, we explained the background of the retiree health plan funding, the options, and the final short-term solution to funding the shortfall.
Because of that visit, a better understanding of the retiree health care issue was reached. The commissioner took back information that will help create a better education process about the benefits available to retirees. I will be even more cognizant of the impact to retirees as we move forward in creating a long-term solution to retiree health plan funding. Finally, the retiree learned about the challenges legislators faced in making changes to her health care plan.
Shortly after our visit, we received a follow-up email from this retired state employee: "Thank you for making some time in your incredibly busy schedules to come and meet with me in Laconia. I learned some very valuable things including how this increase came about and all that is being done to try and balance the increase in costs of prescriptions and state retirees benefits.
Thank you senator for arranging this and for all the hard work you have done and are continuing to do. I was really glad to meet you in person and thank you for the valuable information you brought."
(Meredith Republican Jeanie Forrester represents District 2 in the New Hampshire Senate.)