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    State commission to reconsider widely condemned changes to health coverage

    Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
    Steven Senne/Associated Press
    Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

    In a dramatic shift, a state commission assailed for making big changes to public employee health plans with little notice said it was rethinking the move Thursday, a week after its decision ignited a firestorm among workers, labor unions, and politicians.

    The Group Insurance Commission said it will reconsider its vote to eliminate popular health plans for hundreds of thousands of state employees and their families at a meeting on Feb. 1. Ashley Maagero Lee, the commission’s chief of staff, said in a prepared statement that the decision to reconsider was “a result of candid feedback from members and stakeholders.”

    The commission’s goal was to allow people to keep their current health care providers while controlling their premium and out-of-pocket costs, Lee said. “The GIC recognizes that there is opportunity to better engage stakeholders more directly and robustly” in the future, she added.

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    The commission — whose members are appointed by the governor — is now poised to reverse its Jan. 18 vote to eliminate commercial health plans from three popular Massachusetts-based insurers: Tufts Health Plan, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Fallon Health. By cutting those insurers, the commission would force some 200,000 people to move to new health plans at three lesser-known insurance companies.

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    The commission’s about-face on Thursday drew praise and relief from opponents of the change. But it did not abate all of their concerns.

    The House is still working to form a committee to look at the commission’s actions, and the Senate is planning an oversight hearing. One senator has filed legislation that would require the commission to give the Legislature 90 days’ notice before making such changes in the future.

    And many public workers on Thursday said they remain frustrated with the way the commission handled important health insurance changes, and worried about their own family’s health care.

    The commission announced it would reconsider its vote shortly after Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said it is investigating whether the panel violated Massachusetts’ Open Meeting Law.

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    Healey’s office said the commission — which manages health benefits for about 442,000 state and municipal employees, retirees, and their families — may have violated rules that require sufficient and understandable notices of public meetings.

    If investigators find that a public body has failed to provide sufficient notice, they could nullify any action taken at the meeting.

    “The GIC’s vote to limit its health care options was seriously mishandled and left a lot of unanswered questions for workers, families, and retirees across Massachusetts,” the attorney general said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that the commission is now headed in the right direction and will start acting with greater transparency.”

    Last Friday, the day after the commission’s vote, Governor Charlie Baker told reporters that commission officials needed to communicate their plan more clearly. On Wednesday, he acknowledged the rollout of the changes was flawed and had caused confusion, and he said commission officials “need to take seriously the blowback.”

    “The governor looks forward to the GIC’s next steps in this process to reconsider their recent vote,” Baker’s spokeswoman, Lizzy Guyton, said in a statement Thursday.

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    Administration officials said the governor was notified about the commission’s planned health insurance changes on Jan. 16, two days before the commission voted.

    Commission members include Baker’s secretary of administration and finance, Michael Heffernan, who voted in favor of the controversial changes. As outrage grew in the following days, Heffernan met with union officials, who urged him to reconsider.

    “This is a major victory for . . . the entire labor movement in Massachusetts,” said Frank Moroney, executive director of AFSCME Council 93, a union that represents state, county, and municipal workers.

    Baker and commission officials have said that even with the elimination of three well-known carriers, public employees and their families would be able to keep their doctors while saving on their health care costs.

    The commission’s changes were expected to save $20.8 million in the first year.

    The panel’s initial vote angered many public workers and labor unions that represent them, who said they were blindsided by the decision.

    David Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, said the commission’s decision to reconsider its vote may only be a “temporary reprieve.”

    “It is obvious that the governor heard the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of those affected by this ill-conceived and non-transparent plan marching to the polls to express their anger toward the Baker administration,” Holway said.

    The president of the Service Employees International Union’s Local 509, Peter MacKinnon, said he was “relieved that the GIC is preparing to undo their incredibly misguided decision.”

    “In the last week, hundreds of SEIU Local 509 members called the governor, spoke to their legislators, and attended the GIC’s hearings to protest this decision,” he said in a statement. “We’re glad their voices were heard.”

    Public workers from across the state also protested the commission’s actions at hearings this week. A hearing in Boston on Thursday drew hundreds of people who lined up in the cold on Staniford Street as they waited to enter the building. But many were turned away or had to wait for hours as the meeting room quickly filled up.

    Several public employees waiting to attend said they had taken time off from work to be there.

    “Why did we have to take days off and come down here and fight for something [they] never brought to our attention in the first place?” said a frustrated Monique Johnson, who works for the city of Somerville and gets her health benefits through the state commission.

    Dr. Roberta Herman, executive director of the Group Insurance Commission, declined to be interviewed after the hearing Thursday. Herman formerly held a top position at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care — where Baker used to be CEO — and took over at the state commission in 2016.

    Representatives for Tufts, Harvard Pilgrim, and Fallon — which faced the prospect of possibly having to cut jobs to deal with the loss of state business — said they were encouraged by the commission’s decision to reconsider.

    “Many of our members have reached out to tell us how much they value their relationship with Tufts Health Plan — it’s our hope we are able to continue serving them,” Tufts spokeswoman Sonya Hagopian said.

    Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.
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