By Brenda Flanagan
“Hallelujah!” laughs retired state worker Thelma Napoleon-Smith.
She’s thrilled. Napoleon-Smith just found out co-pays for her prescriptions will get rolled back come July after a judge ruled that the Christie administration had illegally raised those rates — driving up the cost of medication for thousands of seniors. We found her outside a pharmacy.
“In fact, I’m going to pick something for my husband right now, and I came back to the car because I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh! It’s more than I thought it would be,’” Napoleon-Smith said.
“People who have these very high-cost prescription drugs and chronic illness had unbelievably high co-pays,” said Communications Workers of America State Director Hetty Rosenstein.
Rosenstein says the state overcharged retired workers almost $20 million in co-pays, so starting July 1, it’ll roll those rates way back. Generic drug co-pays will drop, for example, from $14 to $0, and non-preferred name brands from $54 down to $11 — and stay there through the end of this year.
When told generic prescriptions might actually be free, state worker Joellen Stevens said, “Oh, that’d be great because most of mine’s generic and I would love it, I really would.”
“I think it’s great. I’m really happy about it,” said Rosenstein.
Rosenstein says the co-pay rollbacks are actually payback for more than a year’s worth of overcharges that resulted from a clash of political titans. In 2011, after Gov. Chris Christie signed a pension and benefit reform law, a special committee met to negotiate ways to save money on health care. On the issue of prescription co-pays, that State Health Benefits Plan Design Committee deadlocked — six union reps, versus six management members. The administration ignored the committee and in 2013 unilaterally hiked co-pays. The unions sued — and won. So these rollbacks are also a form of political payback.
“You had to have a majority determine a change and the administration did this unilaterally and now we have a real understanding. There has to be a negotiation and we have to have a majority and we have a level playing field and we can make this system work,” said Rosenstein.
At the end of this year, co-pays will revert to 2012 levels — the starting point when the design committee first met.
As for the administration, Treasury spokesman Chris Santarelli called state worker co-pays “embarrassingly low and almost entirely subsidized by taxpayers. We will continue our efforts to work with the CWA’s leadership to implement practical, cost effective measures for the benefit of all taxpayers.”
“It’s time that an element of fairness comes back into this whole situation, so I’m glad,” said Napoleon-Smith.
The committee met last week to restart negotiations on how to save health care costs. And the union is pleased to report a most welcome shift in attitude on the other side as they move forward.