Capitol & State

Idaho lawmakers get full-time health coverage for part-time jobs

Idaho Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, announced in March 2016 that he would give up his state health insurance to protest the plight of 78,000 Idahoans who can’t get insurance. He said other lawmakers think the value of their health benefits rivals their salaries.
Idaho Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, announced in March 2016 that he would give up his state health insurance to protest the plight of 78,000 Idahoans who can’t get insurance. He said other lawmakers think the value of their health benefits rivals their salaries. bdentzer@idahostatesman.com

Amid the Idaho Legislature’s latest discussion on how the state will address health care needs of the working poor, a reader wrote to ask: What health benefits do state lawmakers receive? Here are the vitals:

Lawmakers are eligible for the same benefits package available to all state employees. Though Idaho’s 105 legislators technically serve part-time, they are considered full-time employees for purposes of insurance and retirement benefits. The state group health plan is held by Blue Cross of Idaho. See the rate schedule at IdahoStatesman.com.

The state’s health care contribution per full-time employee, including a 9 percent increase that kicked in this month with the new fiscal year, is $12,240 a year — $1,020 a month. As with other group plans, costs are based on claims history, not participation. The state’s costs and per-employee contributions are determined by the total number of state employees, not by the actual number of workers enrolled. So there is no savings to the state when employees opt out.

Confidentiality requirements limit the amount of information the state can disclose about coverage for specific employees, including lawmakers. But of 105 legislators, 90 are enrolled in the state plan — 30 of 35 in Senate and 60 of 70 in the House. Their opt-out rate of about 14 percent is higher than that of the overall state workforce, where about 1,500 of 19,000 workers, or 8 percent, don’t take the state package.

90 of 105Idaho lawmakers who take state health insurance

The state also cites confidentiality in declining to disclose the total number of lawmakers’ dependents on the state plan. The average for the entire state workforce is 1.5 dependents per employee.

So what do they pay? Per the rate schedule, the total premium for a married employee with one child ranges from $126 to $181 a month depending on the type of plan and deductible, or $1,452 to $2,172 annually.

Schmidt now without insurance

State Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, turned the spotlight on the subject of legislator health care in March. To protest the Legislature’s lack of action on better health care options for the poor, Schmidt announced that he would give up his state coverage until lawmakers addressed the issue. He said he and his wife would obtain coverage on the Obamacare-created state insurance exchange.

But as Schmidt subsequently learned, people who refuse workplace coverage aren’t eligible for health plans on the exchange until the next open enrollment period. As a result, Schmidt has no coverage until next year at the earliest. Further, under Obamacare, those who go without insurance are subject to a tax penalty.

“And I’ll be paying the penalty,” Schmidt said. “I did it for a principle and I’m going to stick with my principles at this point. It’s a protest move and I would hope it would make people think.”

I did it for a principle, and I’m going to stick with my principles at this point.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow

Based on his discussions with fellow officeholders, Schmidt said, a number are on Medicare. That’s not surprising. With an average age of 63, the Idaho Legislature is the second-oldest in the nation. Some use the state plan to supplement that coverage. Others are on a spouse’s plan. Most, he said, “see the health insurance benefit as almost more valuable than their salary.” Compared with base legislative pay at $16,684, “it is a very rich benefit.”

Schmidt’s decision to opt out didn’t save the state money, but it did put focus attention on the status of the 78,000 low-income Idahoans who don’t qualify either for Medicaid or Obamacare insurance subsidies.

“I am trying to get my colleagues to consider the importance of health care access from a greater perspective,” Schmidt said. “One guy dropping out of the state pool doesn’t save the taxpayer a dime, but if we keep thinking like that we go bankrupt. We have to start seeing the bigger picture, and there is no doubt that helping the working poor in Idaho would help us all.”

Note: An earlier version of this story implied that Schmidt’s ineligibility for insurance on the state exchange was permanent, not just for the current year.

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD

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