Retirees still concerned about changes to state health plan

Deputy Commissioner of Administration Mike Barnhill.

Deputy Commissioner of Administration Mike Barnhill speaks to retired public employees in Juneau about recent changes to the AlaskaCare health plan. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

Retired public employees can still comment on changes to the AlaskaCare health plan through April 30.

Thousands of members are experiencing problems with Aetna and Moda Health, the companies that took over managing the plan for the state on Jan. 1. Many retirees also believe proposed changes will result in reduced coverage.

Mike Barnhill, Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration, insists the changes will not diminish benefits. But last week he apologized for the transition to new plan administrators.

“Quite frankly, our communication was not enough,” Barnhill told about 75 retired public employees at a town hall meeting in Juneau on Friday.

The Department of Administration also held meetings with retirees last week in Anchorage and Fairbanks. If the purpose was to clear up some confusion and concern, the meetings did not appear to work.

“For me the biggest concern is I have to have four cleanings a year for my teeth, because I’ve had problems with receding gum lines. The previous insurance companies always covered it. Now they’re telling me they will only cover two,” said Gary Miller, Southeast Alaska representative to the executive board of the Retired Public Employees of Alaska.

State retirement system benefits are guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution. The state Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean benefits can be revised, but not reduced.

RPEA hired a consultant to do a side-by-side comparison of the current plan booklet and proposed update. The analysis found about 75 different reductions in benefits, but only 11 additions.

“They did not have an actuary look at that and see if the additions equal the deductions,” Miller said. “And my guess is that when they reduced it, they reduced it far more than the additions.”

During the Juneau meeting Barnhill admitted the state has not produced its own comparison of the current plan booklet and proposed revisions. Until the new version is adopted, Aetna and Moda Health are supposed to be operating under the 2003 update, which has been amended several times, most recently on Jan. 1.

“I absolutely do not think that anything that we did on Jan. 1 is a diminishment. I absolutely think that everything we did on Jan. 1 is an enhancement that will save the plan costs and will save the members costs,” Barnhill said.

AlaskaCare mailers

The state has sent a variety of information to AlaskaCare members on recent changes to their health care plan. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

He said there’s no timeline for adopting the revised booklet, which many retirees have complained is full of confusing legal jargon.

Miller says Aetna and Moda Health do not appear to be following either version of the plan.

“Aetna and Moda seem to have pretty much free reign now to do what they want,” he said.

One of the more controversial changes to the plan steers members to health care providers in the Aetna and Moda Health networks. Members who go to another doctor or dentist could pay more out of pocket for things that used to be covered. Several retirees at the Juneau meeting pointed out that the network list includes doctors who no longer practice in town and providers not typically needed by retirees, such as midwives. Still, Barnhill defended the network system as a way to reduce premiums.

“I’m not going to dispute that it could be better,” he said. “We want to work to make it better, because that is the answer for this plan and for this state.”

Barnhill said the state will hold additional public meetings on the plan changes in April. Before then, he promised the state would release its own side-by-side analysis of the current plan and the revised version, which is out for public comment.

More than 67,000 retirees and their dependents are covered by AlaskaCare. Another 6,600 active state workers and their 10,000 dependents are covered by the plan as well. Most active state workers are covered by other plans.

Watch Gavel Alaska‘s coverage of the Juneau meeting on AlaskaCare changes:

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