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State hiking health premiums for teachers, others

ATLANTA - Teachers and state employees will be socked with a 10 percent increase in health insurance premiums next year, Georgia's chief health administrator said Wednesday.

Starting Jan. 1, enrollees in the State Health Benefit Plan will be forced to bear a portion of the system's growing costs, Department of Community Health Commissioner Rhonda Medows told members of the House and Senate appropriations committees during the opening day of hearings on Gov. Sonny Perdue's 2008 budget request.

During his State of the State address last week, the governor announced that he would ask the Legislature for $176 million "to continue funding health insurance for our teachers and state employees.''

But on Wednesday, Medows said the state will need more than that - $215 million - to cover projected increases in enrollment and expenditures.

"That did not come out in the governor's speech,'' Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said late Wednesday after hearing word of the proposed hike in health premiums. "That would be absolutely devastating.''

"I think this will hit our members like a glass of cold water in the face,'' added Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the

state's other major teachers

organization.

After three straight years of double-digit premium increases, the plan's nearly 700,000 enrollees caught a break this fiscal year when Perdue froze their premiums. The freeze was part of a major election-year spending increase the governor was able to provide in the current budget as state tax collections recovered from an economic slowdown.

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said that, even with the increase, the health plan's enrollees will continue to pay 24 percent of their premium costs, with the state picking up the remaining 76 percent.

"The state will do as much as it can to offset these costs,'' he said. "But it can't do that every year.''

Medows said that for a teacher making $30,000 a year, the higher premiums will reduce the 3 percent pay raise the governor announced last week for teachers and state workers to 2.1 percent.

But Hubbard said the impact will be greater on lower-wage employees.

"What about lunchroom workers who barely make minimum wage or a person just entering state government?'' he said.

Department of Community Health spokeswoman Dena Brummer said the premium increase will apply only to current teachers and state workers, not to the system's retirees.

Earlier Wednesday, Perdue summarized his $20.2 billion budget request for the two committees, highlighting spending initiatives he first outlined last week.

The governor's priority list includes $29.4 million to expand his graduation coaches program into Georgia's middle schools, $70 million in bonds for the next phase of his multi-year Fast Forward road building program and $50 million for open space preservation.

Perdue was criticized during last year's gubernatorial campaign for the state's failure to acquire the privately owned Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Middle Georgia, a top priority of the Department of Natural Resources, when the property became available.

At the time, the governor said the state couldn't afford to put in a bid because of a tight budget.

"We need to be prepared ... for the deals that come along,'' Perdue said.

Also on Wednesday, state university system Chancellor Erroll Davis asked lawmakers for $10 million in startup funds for Georgia Gwinnett College.

He said the money would help the new four-year school in Lawrenceville hire up to 150 faculty members for the fall semester, when GGC begins its second year by enrolling its first freshman class.

"We have to address this outside of the (system funding) formula,'' Davis said. "The formula doesn't address starting situations.''

The chancellor also put in a plug for the governor's request for $28.3 million in bonds to build a library for Georgia Gwinnett. The college must have a library to become accredited, Davis said.