West Virginia editorial roundup
Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Charleston Daily Mail on the teacher and public employee pay rate:
West Virginia teachers swarmed the state Capitol to rally for higher pay and better benefits, something many lawmakers would like to provide. Additional demonstrations are planned.
The concerns of teachers and school service personnel are legitimate. Ideally, West Virginia teachers would be getting a salary of $43,000 by now, as originally hoped in the 2014 legislative session. Unfortunately, starting teacher salaries linger at about $33,000, reports Gazette-Mail education writer Ryan Quinn.
Even with incremental pay increases of 1 percent to 1.5 percent per year, West Virginia teacher salaries rank 48th out of 50 states, according to the West Virginia Education Association, making the state an outlier in the teacher pay issue.
West Virginia is also an outlier for median family income, ranking 49th. The state also ranks last in labor force participation rate and last, for three years running, in Forbes Magazine’s business climate index.
While West Virginia’s economy is beginning to look better, resources to increase pay to the desired amount are still limited. Without a robust economy that attracts and creates higher-paying private-sector jobs to grow the tax base, a sudden, significant increase to move West Virginia teachers up in comparison to other states will be hard. That’s why economic development must be top priority.
And teachers aren’t the only public employees who deserve better pay. The issue for corrections and jail staff is at crisis level, and the State Police aren’t much better.
Then there’s the Public Employees Insurance Agency. The PEIA Finance Board recently adopted well-intentioned reforms that have drawn the ire of teachers and lawmakers alike — the most significant being how the agency calculates premium rates for enrollees.
Unlike most private-sector insurance plans, PEIA sets its premiums based off of what it believes is an employee’s ability to pay. For years, this was determined by an individual state employee’s income. But teachers and state employees with wealthier spouses could get low-cost insurance plans that were essentially subsidized by lower-income state employees.
Switching to a total family income system will increase costs for some families, but PEIA Director Ted Cheatham told lawmakers the new system will reduce costs for about 45 percent of those who enroll.
Comparing the old rates to the new system, a single mother making $30,000 could save up to $1,270 a year in lower premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs under this new plan. A family earning less than $60,000 could see savings of up to $3,400.
But the new plans appear to have unintended consequences for families where both spouses work for the state and make more than $60,000. That’s why the PEIA Finance Board plans to hold public hearings to reconsider this plan for those employees.
The teacher and state employee pay issue is a balance.
Teachers, and others paid by the state, deserve a competitive wage. West Virginia taxpayers deserve fair taxation. The state needs to move carefully and work for long-term goals to bring teacher and public employee pay rates to competitive levels, while keeping tax rates and tax structure fair and competitive.
The Herald-Dispatch on holding the drug industry accountable:
Congressman Greg Walden of Oregon is asking the right questions about the massive shipments of pain pills to West Virginia.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce plans to hold hearings in Washington later this month on the role of prescription drug distribution in the raging opioid epidemic, and the committee sent a letter to the Ohio-based Miami-Luken drug wholesaling company with sharp questions about the huge quantities of painkillers shipped to several small towns in southern West Virginia.
“These numbers are outrageous, and we will get to the bottom of how this destruction was able to be unleashed across West Virginia,” panel Chairman Walden and ranking member U.S. Rep. Frank Pollone Jr, (D-N.J.) said in a statement.
How did drug companies not know they were “oversupplying” our state? These are important questions, and we hope the committee can get some answers.
But you have to ask this: Why has it taken Washington so long to dig into this issue?
In fact, one of the cases cited in the letter concerns the Sav-Rite Pharmacies No. 1 and No. 2 in Kermit, West Virginia, which dates back almost a decade.
“In an area with a population of just a few hundred, the two Sav-Rite pharmacies received millions of dosage units of the pain-killer hydrocodone in 2006 — enough to rank 22nd nationally in most hydrocone dosage units purchased by retail pharmacies,” The Herald-Dispatch reported in April 2009. Federal agents at the time reported parking lots packed with cars from several states and one cash drawer “so full that the clerk could not get it to close properly.”
It was more than clear what was going on, but the pattern of huge shipments to small-town drug outlets has continued for years. The committee letter also details two pharmacies in Williamson, four blocks apart, that received 20,827,260 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills between 2006 to 2016, about four times the average for pharmacies that size, according to the national Drug Enforcement Agency.
But it is even more disturbing that despite crackdowns and media attention, the flow of prescription painkillers is still high. The Center for Disease Control reported last summer that nationally, opioid prescriptions had declined 18 percent between 2010 — considered the peak year — and 2015. But even with that reduction, the volume was still three times what it was in 1999.
This month the West Virginia pharmacy board also reported significant drops in prescriptions for hydrocodone and oxycodone. But the state still reports 235.9 million doses of controlled substances, which is about 130 pills for each man, woman and child in the Mountain State.
It is encouraging that Congress is finally working to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable, but much more needs to be done to bring the supply and distribution of the dangerous drugs down to a reasonable level.
The Bluefield Daily Telegraph on U.S. Congress reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program and how that affects West Virginia and Virginia:
There was much concern earlier this year about the fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a vital federal initiative that helps more than 21,000 children in West Virginia and 66,000 children in Virginia.
Concerns over the fate of the CHIP program were magnified late last month when Democrats and Republicans were not immediately able to agree upon a budget bill to keep the government running. That led to a brief three-day government shutdown.
But common sense would soon prevail. The final agreement reached by a bipartisan group of lawmakers working to reopen the federal government included a six-year reauthorization of the CHIP program. As a result, children living in West Virginia and Virginia that are dependent upon the CHIP program will not experience an interruption of health care services.
In West Virginia, the WVCHIP Board met last week to rescind its previous action of Nov. 8, 2017, to close the program due to a lack of federal funding.
The Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services also alerted Virginia-side families in December that their children’s CHIP coverage was in danger of ending if Congress failed to reauthorize the program.
Years ago the CHIP program wasn’t tainted by Washington politics. Democrats and Republicans alike were generally supportive of the program. But much has changed in recent years. Congress is largely dysfunctional. Republicans and Democrats, nowadays, are seemingly unable to agree on anything.
Still, even in this age of bipartisan gridlock, in the end few lawmakers had the stomach to allow funding for the CHIP program to expire.
Consider the well-stated arguments of two of our federal lawmakers, one Republican and one Democrat.
“Important programs like CHIP help children and must be bipartisan, and legislators need to rise above politics to put this nation’s children first,” U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., said.
“While we are glad to have been part of the group that worked across the aisle to find a bipartisan solution, Congress should have never allowed political gamesmanship to jeopardize the well-being of the 66,000 children and 1,100 pregnant women in Virginia who rely on the CHIP program ...,” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said.
Maybe, just maybe, we have found something that Democrats and Republicans can agree upon. And that’s the well-being of children across the country.