With many state workers poised to soon make monthly health care contributions for the first time, will Iowa lawmakers follow suit?
Under a recent arbitration award, workers in the largest state employees' union will have to make a monthly contribution of at least $20 to their health care premiums starting in January. This will be a shift for most of the roughly 19,000 state workers represented by Local 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Gov. Terry Branstad and members of his administration already pay a portion of their health care premiums, but lawmakers in the part-time General Assembly can get plans that don't require a monthly payment. Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said he'd like to change that.
"It's about some level of fairness," said Paulsen, of Hiawatha. "The average Iowan contributes to their health care. I don't see any reason why the average legislator or state employee shouldn't do so as well."
Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state House have supported legislation in recent years that would revise collective bargaining agreements and require state workers and legislators to pay a portion of health care costs. While some of those efforts got approval in the House, they did not advance in the Democratic-majority Senate.
Paulsen said that making this change will be part of the budget conversation this year. He expressed optimism, since most state workers will now be paying already but said it was too soon to talk about details.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, of Council Bluffs, was less forthcoming on whether he will consider such a change. He declined an interview request and through a spokesman released a statement that said: "We've had discussions in the past with House leadership about this issue. I expect we'll have additional conversations this year, too."
According to data provided by the Legislature, at least 126 of the 150 lawmakers have state-provided health care plans. About 70 percent of them have single or family plans that do not require a monthly payment. The rest pay a monthly fee of about $300 for a more robust plan.
The new contract for the union was awarded two weeks ago by a neutral arbitrator. The two-year deal includes a pay raise of about 6 percent over two years for workers, as well as the new health care contributions. The arbitrator decided that the union's proposal for employees to pay at least $20 a month toward their health care premiums was more reasonable than the state's proposal, which would have required a bigger contribution.
Branstad, who has pushed for health care contributions from state workers for years, said he was glad to see workers paying something.
"I think everybody should," Branstad said. "People need to have some skin in the game."
According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, an Iowa resident with employer health insurance paid an average of $1,197 for the benefits in 2013, slightly above the national average.
Union president Danny Homan declined to comment on whether lawmakers should contribute to their health care premiums, saying it was not his place to weigh in. But he said the health care change was a big concession, calling it a "huge move that this union made."