Columns » Clancy DuBos

Health to Pay

Clancy DuBos on how Gov. Bobby Jindal, like former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, will be forced to separate himself from a popular state health-care plan

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If you're trying to figure out why Gov. Bobby Jindal is so hell-bent on privatizing Louisiana's group health benefits program, consider Mitt Romney's predicament. Romney wants be the Republican nominee against President Barack Obama next year, but five years ago he signed a sweeping universal health care bill into law as Massachusetts' governor.

  That hardly sets him apart from Obama, who did the same thing on the national level. Romney's likely primary opponents can't wait to out him on that one. Wags already are talking about "the Romney problem" on the issue of health care reform.

  Supporters of universal health care praise the Massachusetts law (the state's current governor recently presided over a five-year birthday party for the law and wondered why Romney didn't attend), while opponents, including Republicans, claim it will bankrupt the state.

  Given that kind of ideological divide on the national level, and given Jindal's transparent national ambitions, our governor's drive to sell or privatize Louisiana's state employee health plan makes perfect sense ... for Jindal.

  From his perspective, Jindal cannot afford to have a Romney problem when he makes his move to go national. In fact, his problem could be worse than Romney's — the Louisiana plan actually works. So much so that it has a $520 million surplus.

  In a move Shakespeare ("The first thing we do ... kill all the lawyers") would have applauded, Jindal fired the guy who turned around Louisiana's Office of Group Benefits (OGB). Tommy Teague, former chief executive officer of OGB, had the audacity to criticize Jindal's sale/privatization plan and praise the agency that provides excellent health benefits to more than 225,000 state employees, retirees and their families. Teague was given no reason for his termination on April 15 (the timing could not have been lost on Jindal, a rabid anti-tax guy).

  Jindal initially proposed selling the group benefits plan via a Wall Street firm, but that idea ran into so much opposition that the governor — who doesn't even need legislative approval to do what he proposes — has since scaled back his plan to a mere "privatization" of the health insurance portfolio. For the quarter-million or so people who depend on the office for their insurance benefits, the result is the same: potentially higher premiums and/or less coverage.

  A number of public officials — including several elected Republicans — have told me privately that the OGB provides outstanding service. All express a shared fear that privatizing the office will affect them adversely.

  On a related front, Team Jindal has refused to turn over a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed privatization plan to Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera. Jindal's office says the analysis by Chaffe & Associates is not yet complete — and even if and when it is, it's part of Jindal's "deliberative process" and therefore its disclosure is not required. Purpera says that exception does not apply to the requests from the legislative auditor, who must render an annual opinion on the state's financial condition.

  Perhaps most telling was Jindal's recent comparison of the debate over his proposal to last year's fight over Obama's national health care reform program. Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater has said this debate is about "smaller government ... less government ... efficient government." In other words, it's about ideology, not actual numbers.

  On the numbers, Jindal's argument fizzles. The Legislative Fiscal Office says the state-run plan has only 10 percent administrative overhead; the national average for private plans is 15 percent. That extra 5 percent is what employees will have to make up via higher premiums — or reduced coverage.

  But hey, that's their problem. If Jindal gets his way, at least he won't have a Romney problem.

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