State workers voice anger on health care cost increases

Billion-dollar surplus in Md. budget renews employees' outrage

September 09, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Irate state employees packed an auditorium last night, lining up to express outrage over increases in their prescription drug co-pays and other health care costs that took effect three weeks before the governor announced a billion-dollar budget surplus.

Some in the audience of about 175 talked of cutting their pills in half to make them last longer. Others said they have given up their medicine altogether because of prohibitive cost.

The increase in prescription co-pays took effect July 1 over the protests of state workers, but what renewed outrage over the issue, they said last night, was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s announcement July 19 of a $1 billion-plus surplus in the state budget.

"When they cut our benefits, they told us they were in a budget crisis," said Edward Bynum, 58. "Now suddenly, they're sitting pretty on a huge surplus."

For much of the meeting, at the state office building at 300 W. Preston St. in Baltimore, Cecilia Januszkiewicz, state secretary of budget and management, defended the increases passed on to state workers.

Budget not unlimited

"We do not have an unlimited budget," Januszkiewicz said. "The plan is to continue with the current co-pay."

The union organizing last night's meeting, Maryland Classified Employees Association, said increased costs for prescription drugs is the latest of recent benefit reductions suffered by state employees.

In recent years, the state government has increased health insurance premiums and co-pays for visits to doctors and physical therapists. State workers also saw wage freezes during fiscal years 2003 and 2004, the union said.

Another union meeting

Another state employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, also complained in a meeting Wednesday.

"State employees have taken it on the chin time and time again whenever there's talk of budget shortage," said Sue Esty, legislative director for AFSCME. Esty's union is asking for a $4,000 cost-of-living raise for all state employees in the budget for the 2007 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Januszkiewicz said the increases in prescription co-pays were justified because they had not been changed in 13 years.

"Health care costs for the state have been going up at double-digit rates," she said. "Our co-pays hadn't changed even though the cost of drugs had increased significantly."

The co-pays increased from $3, $5 and $10 for a 90-day supply of different categories of drugs, to $5, $15 and $25 for a 30- to 45-day supply.

Januszkiewicz said she understood the workers' frustration with benefit cuts in light of the surplus, but she said the large surplus was not anticipated and that much of it will be used to pay for increased costs - including health care - in fiscal years 2006 and 2007.

The most heated exchanges occurred as workers argued with Januszkiewicz.

"I am a state employee like all of you," she said. "We don't want to hurt state employees," she said.

`Don't you tell me ... "

"Don't you tell me you're an employee like all of us," responded Pat Bailey, a 30-year state employee. "Your pay is $100,000-some a year. That doesn't make me feel any better."

Many in the audience scoffed as Januszkiewicz said state jobs may offer lower salaries compared with the private sector, but "many employees come for a higher purpose, to serve their fellow citizens."

In the hall, state worker Anthony McLamb said quietly, "To be honest, none of us came for the pay. We know it's low. We came for the benefits, and now even that is being cut."

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