BATON ROUGE – A lawsuit filed by state workers and retirees alleging that former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state’s Office of Group Benefits (OGB) made illegal changes to employee health plans is finally about to get a hearing after a round of court appeals by defendants.
A hearing on the merits of the lawsuit had been scheduled this week by 19th District Judge Janice Clark, but it has been delayed until May 17 because the state now has new attorneys who need more time to review the case. The lawsuit, which was filed last year, has not advanced because defendants filed appeals seeking Clark’s recusal.
The case, however, is now back in Clark’s court. The lawsuit alleges the Jindal administration mishandled an attempt to privatize health plan operations and that the changes the OGB eventually carried out were not done according to the state’s Administrative Procedure Act. The law requires that the affected workers be given a chance to comment on proposed changes to health plans, the lawsuit states.
“Blue Cross Blue Shield has most of it,” Jerel Giarrusso, spokeswoman for the group that is funding the lawsuit, told the Louisiana Record. “Most of the operations are in fact privatized.”
The health plan changes for state employees, teachers and retirees have led to increases in premiums and decreases in benefits, Giarrusso said, adding that the result has been financial hardships for workers, limits on health care services and less access to needed medicines.
“Some people have had a very difficult time,” she said. “One retiree who was seeing a pain specialist four times a month can now only go once a month… . Some people can’t even afford to buy state insurance.”
One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Marilee Cash, said in a prepared statement this week that the primary aim of the lawsuit is to protect the 230,000 public employees who receive health insurance through the OGB.
“These increased costs have put health care services out of reach for many dedicated public servants and retirees and their dependents,” Cash said.
Giarrusso told the Record that she didn’t believe additional state legislation was needed to protect those workers. “Just follow the Administrative Procedure Act, and you won’t have a problem,” she said.
The lawsuit argues for corrective actions. The plaintiffs say they want to see the administration required to allow workers who are affected by health plan changes to be able to comment on them before they take effect.
Filed after the health plan changes took effect in March of last year, the lawsuit also charges that OGB’s reserve fund, which stood at $500 million in 2011, was allowed to dwindle as the Jindal administration reduced employer contributions in order to help balance the state budget.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit point out that former state Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell wrote an opinion in 2014 stating that the proposed health plan changes could not be enforced because they violated the Administrative Procedure Act.
The group funding the lawsuit calls itself the Louisiana Voices of Employees and Retirees for Insurance Truth and Equity, or LA VERITÉ, which means “truth” in French. Attorney J. Arthur Smith III of the Smith Law Firm in Baton Rouge represents the plaintiffs.