55 United. 55 Strong.
Those were just some of the phrases teachers and service personnel chanted in the State Capitol and along major roadways in all 55 counties during a nine-day work stoppage.
A large source of their frustration was rising health insurance premiums, a cost they say is already too high.
Jessica Bramer is the speech and yearbook teacher at John Marshall High School.
In 2010, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
They caught it early, but she says it took her five years to pay off her medical bills.
“I don’t make a lot of money, but a quarter of my paycheck every paycheck goes to my healthcare,” Bramer.
A majority of public employees, including teachers, are insured through PEIA.
But they also have the option of purchasing coverage through The Health Plan.
Vice President of Commercial Products David Mathieu says it’s not surprising to see premiums go up.
He says healthcare in general rises in cost at about 8-percent per year.
“It’s inevitable that your costs are going to go up regardless. Then couple that with the fact that we’re not the most healthy of populations in West Virginia… High rates of diabetes, high rates of opioid use, high rates of obesity… You throw that all into the mix and your cost, if you can control it at 8 percent, you’re probably doing pretty well,” said Mathieu.
Mathieu says the rising cost of healthcare is a complicated issue.
If healthcare becomes more expensive in general every year, how can public employees expect to not see a rise in their premiums?
That’s a question the state is looking to the Governor’s PEIA task force to answer.
Bramer says she and her fellow teachers knew they wouldn’t get rich by becoming teachers, but they expect to be taken care of.
“I would hate for situations to get so bad that teachers like me take the five minute drive Pennsylvania where they’re going to cover my healthcare. I don’t want to leave my kids, but I have to pay my bills,” said Bramer.
The freeze on current PEIA premiums lasts until June 30th, 2019 when the task force will hopefully have a solution.
The PEIA task force has already had two meetings in the state capitol.
To follow what they are doing, visit PEIATaskForce.wv.gov.