By Patrick Crowley
Enquirer staff writer
Kentucky lawmakers head to Frankfort today to grapple with the state's health insurance controversy.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher on Monday officially summoned the General Assembly into special session. The sole job before them is to consider "the compensation, health insurance benefits and retirement benefits of active and retired public employees," according to the governor's proclamation.
"I've heard the teachers, the bus drivers and state workers as I've traveled across this state," Fletcher told reporters. "I've called this session to give them relief."
Teachers and other state employees are facing higher health insurance premiums for reduced benefits.
Northern Kentucky lawmakers will be in the thick of the action, which is likely to be more politically charged than usual given that statehouse elections are less than a month away.
No one is quite sure how long the session will last.
Estimates range from five days to several weeks.
Republican Sens. Jack Westwood of Crescent Springs and Damon Thayer of Georgetown have filed a bill that would pay state employees an additional $600 next year to cover their insurance deductible and prescription drug co-payments.
Their plan also calls for "health reimbursement accounts" that would be funded with an additional $600 from the state. Employees could use the tax-free money toward deductibles.
"What we wanted to do ... was put up a little more help for" employees, Westwood said on WKRC-TV's Newsmaker program, which aired Sunday.
Westwood and Thayer are in tight re-election campaigns. Westwood, who represents Kenton County's 23rd Senate District, is challenged by Fort Mitchell Democrat Kathy Groob. Thayer represents the 17th District, which includes southern Kenton County including Independence and Taylor Mill. He is running against Grant County Democrat Cliff Wallace.
Groob said the plan put forth by the Republicans "is certainly an improvement over the governor's plan, but it doesn't go anywhere near far enough."
"It doesn't even come close to touching the out-of-pocket expenses (employees) will be hurt with," said Groob, who appeared with Westwood on the program. "We're looking at increased premiums of anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000 a year."
Westwood acknowledged that his bill is not going to "make any major impact. Six hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to what the expenses are."
But the legislation helped convince Fletcher to deal with the issue in a special session, Westwood said.
Groob said a long-term solution is to negotiate better health care insurance providers along with generating new money for the state through tax reform and allowing casino gambling at thoroughbred racetracks.
Westwood opposes gambling but does favor reforming the state's tax code.
Meanwhile, Fletcher can't even get the support of his own brother.
Senate candidate Harold Fletcher said he planned to join a protest scheduled for this evening on the Capitol steps. In a statement, Harold Fletcher said the General Assembly and the Fletcher administration should "not use this issue as a political bargaining chip" during the special session.
Harold Fletcher, a Republican, is running for a seat that represents areas including Frankfort.
KY General Assembly Special Session, Frankfort