Tuesday, December 2, 2014

ACA to increase number of Kansas state employees eligible for full-time benefits

By Andy Marso 
KHI News Service

KANSAS CITY, KAN. — Beginning in January, more than 80 percent of workers currently eligible for part-time benefits within the Kansas state employee health plan will be eligible for full-time benefits under changes mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act.

The ACA, also known as Obamacare, establishes 30 hours as the threshold for full-time employment. Starting next year, large employers – those with 50 or more employees – will be required to offer health coverage to all full-time workers. The threshold for state employees to be considered "full-time" for health insurance purposes in Kansas previously was 36 hours per week.

The 30-hour threshold is one of the facets of the ACA that Republicans have targeted for repeal after gaining control both houses of Congress in the midterm election. President Obama has said he will veto any GOP-backed legislation that undermines core elements of the reform law. But the Republican proposal has the backing of powerful business groups.

Kansas state employees who average between 19 and 35 hours a week are currently eligible to buy into the state health plan as part-time employees but at higher rates than full-time workers.

Most of them will now qualify as full-time employees, representatives of the State Employees Health Commission told a legislative committee on Tuesday, making them eligible for lower premiums in the plan.

Mike Michael, director of the state plan, said the change will cost state agencies about $1.5 million annually in increased employer contributions. It will cost local governments that participate in the state plan about $170,000 and school districts that participate about $130,000. Only about 30 of the state's 286 school districts use the state employee plan.

Michael said employee premiums did not increase in the 2015 state health plan.

"Rates for employees remain flat," Michael said. "The members are doing a great job utilizing the services and making some good choices and health care decisions."

Student employees and adjunct professors who work for the state's public universities also will be eligible to join the plan starting next year, if they meet the 30-hour-per-week threshold. Actuaries estimate that might cost the universities an additional $3.5 million.

A public comment hearing on the proposed changes to the state health plan is set for 9 a.m. Dec. 8 on the ninth floor of the Landon State Office Building.

Commission staff reviewed the changes Tuesday with state legislators on the Administrative Rules and Regulations Committee, saying they are necessary to comply with the ACA. The legislators had little to say about them but briefly turned their attention to the lower threshold for buying into the health plan as a part-time employee, which is a state regulation.

Rep. Mark Kahrs, a Republican from Wichita, asked for more information about how long the threshold has been set at 1,000 hours of work per year, which averages out to 19.23 per week.

"That's less than half-time," Kahrs said.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Democrat from Wichita, asked about other health coverage options available for public employees who work less than the 1,000 hours a year.

"Most employees do meet that requirement," said Cory Sheedy, an attorney for the commission. "For those who don't, there's the private market, the (ACA online) exchange."

At the request of state employees, Sheedy said the commission also is proposing to allow married couples who both work in jobs eligible for the state employee health plan to enroll in the plan as one family unit or as two individuals.

Such couples currently are required to enroll as two individuals. Sheedy said that would remain the most cost-effective option for nearly all employees, but a select few might want to enroll as a family if they are combining a high-deductible plan with a health savings account.

"It's a rare instance in which it's actually beneficial," he said. "But some employees had asked about it, and there was no harm to the plan (in doing it)."