Kansas Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt and The Kansas Employees Health Care Commission should be commended for their decision last week to reduce contributions from state employees for their insurance coverage or keep them flat.

The action followed years of mismanagement of the state’s insurance fund — although mismanagement might be the incorrect word. Bear with us.

What exactly did the state do? Topeka Capital-Journal Statehouse reporters Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith laid it out in a story from June 1:

”During the past five years, the state’s contribution to the state employee health insurance account climbed a total of 8.5 percent. Premium payments by state employees with policies that included spouse or family ballooned 115.5 percent in that period — 36.7 percent in 2016, 30.4 percent in 2017, 31.7 percent in 2018 and 16.7 percent in 2019. Premium increases for state retirees in the health insurance system went up 74.1 percent.”

At the same time, reserves in the state’s health fund dropped from a robust $195 million in 2014 to a paltry $24 million in 2017.

It’s easy to blame former governor Sam Brownback’s signature tax policy, and the resulting deficits, for this problem. It’s easy to say this is a consequence of mismanagement or incompetence or desperation.

But it might be more accurate to say that these problems were also part and parcel of a theory of government held by the previous administration: that state employees were disposable, that their service and livelihoods were liabilities rather than advantages and that the more people who left state service the better.

After all, the previous administration championed privatization. It outsourced state jobs and laid off workers. This was not about efficiency or prudent use of resources — many of the moves ended up costing the state money — it had the appearance of an ideological quest against state government itself.

Taken in this context, the insurance changes of the past years look even worse. We can never know if the changes were explicitly meant to drive workers away. But it’s nearly certain that they did so. It’s nearly certain that talented, dedicated, caring public servants left their jobs because they couldn’t afford to keep their health insurance.

That’s deeply unfortunate. The actions taken last week are a move toward rectifying the situation, but much remains to be done throughout Kansas government.

State employees should know, once and for all, that they aren’t the enemy. They are valued members of the team.

Topeka Capital-Journal

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