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Amendment hits legislators close to home

An amendment requiring state lawmakers to immediately begin paying 15 percent of costs for their state-provided health care plans was tabled in the early morning hours of April 14 after members of the state House of Representatives expressed concern that voting on the amendment was an ethical violation.

Legislators are currently not required to contribute to their health care.

The General Assembly has been criticized for passing legislation requiring full-time state employees to pay at least 15 percent of the cost of their plans beginning July 1, while legislators — who are part-time state employes — are not required to make any contributions to their health care costs. State employees are currently required to pay 13.5 percent of their health care costs.

The amendment, proposed by Rep. Karen Macbeth, D-Cumberland, would have been added to the supplemental budget intended to address the state's $220 million budget shortfall. While the amendment did not make it into the supplemental budget passed by the House, changes to the budget by the state Senate on April 15 mean the House must now approve a new supplemental budget — which could still contain the amendment — before the end of this fiscal year.

State legislators currently receive free health care, which can cost up to $18,061 for a family and $6,463 for an individual annually. Most legislators willingly pay part of their health costs. Lawmakers who choose to forgo state-provided care may also choose to take a waiver valued at $2,002.

After an April 19 Providence Journal article published the names of lawmakers who receive free health care, three legislators on that list have decided to either contribute to their care or accept a waiver payment.

This is not the first time legislation to mandate that legislators contribute to their care plans has been proposed. A 2008 bill, which was introduced by Rep. Amy Rice, D-Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport, and required lawmakers to pay 10 percent of their health care costs, passed in the House in 2008. The proposal was not taken up by the state Senate at that time.

Ethics of a vote
Legislators have cited concerns about the ethical implications of the amendment, particularly because its language required that the payment changes take effect instantly.

"The leadership agreed that we should look into whether it affected us personally and therefore we shouldn't vote on it," said Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence. Ajello currently contributes 10 percent of the cost of her health insurance.

While the Rhode Island Ethics Commission would have recommended that any changes to benefits for legislators take effect after the November elections, ethical ramifications of a vote on the amendment would not be subject to the commission's punitive authority, according to Jason Gramitt, a staff attorney with the commission.

The commission lost this power in a Rhode Island Supreme Court case against former state Senate President William Irons, who was accused of a conflict of interest in his legislative dealings regarding CVS, one of his insurance clients. The court decided that the state constitution's "speech in debate" clause prevented the Ethics Commission from taking action against lawmakers for their votes.

"In the wake of the Irons case, legislators are free to vote on any kind of proposal without worrying about whether it's a conflict of interest, without regard to whether or not there is a financial benefit for themselves or their family members or business associates," Grammit said.

Members would likely have been aware of this lack of jurisdiction because House Speaker Gordon Fox has proposed legislation to offer a referendum asking voters to choose whether the power of the Ethics Commission over the legislature should be restored, according to Grammit.

The verdict of the Irons case is "widely reviled," according to Rep. David Segal, D-Providence, who proposed a 2009 constitutional amendment to restore the power of the Ethics Commission and one of the legislators whose name was published in the April 19 Providence Journal article. Segal has begun contributing 20 percent of the cost of his care after his name was published as a legislator paying nothing for care.

"I understand why people have felt pressure to contribute," Segal said. He added that legislators can also forgo perks such as parking spaces and mileage reimbursement that add to a sum comparable to voluntarily contributing to health-care costs.

Segal said even though the Ethics Commission can no longer prosecute legislators for their votes, many lawmakers still make an effort to hold themselves to the ethical standards endorsed by the commisson. He said he would support the amendment if its changes took effect after statewide elections.

To pass or not to pass

Both of the legislators representing College Hill — Ajello and state Sen. Rhoda Perry P'91 — also said they would support the amendment, assuming it went into effect after the November election. But the amendment raises important issues for both.

"I think it's kind of interesting that Rep. Macbeth is introducing legislation that really wouldn't affect her at all because she is insured through her day job as a school principal," Ajello said.

Prior to the publication of the April 15 Providence Journal article, Macbeth opted to take the waiver payment even through she currently receives full health benefits through her job at a Woonsocket public school.

Macbeth has since announced that she will no longer take the waiver payment, according to Monday's Providence Journal.

Ajello said that politicians often find opportunities to "make themselves look good in the public eye" while failing to address systemic problems that lead to inequities in the health care system.

Perry — who currently voluntarily pays 10 percent of her health care plan costs — said she is not averse to contributing 15 percent. But she said that "in a position which is not full time, it is hard to make an analogy" between state employees and part-time legislators who have a different pay structure, she said. 

"Nevertheless, we live in a political world and I understand that it is important for the legislature to try to emulate the general public," Perry said.

Legislators' response to the amendment calls into question whether the General Assembly is serious about reforming how members pay for health care, according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a nonprofit that advocates for transparent government.

"Instead of offering reasons why this shouldn't be done, this spurious issue of violating the code of ethics came up," he said. "I don't see that there's any desire on behalf of the leadership of the General Assembly to allow this vote to take place."



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