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State health plans shift costs from Iowa to its workers

DES MOINES — Thousands of state employees, many who no longer are allowed to bargain collectively for benefits, could face significantly higher health care costs starting Jan. 1 under a plan that provides sizable savings to state coffers.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Administrative Services say they are unable to calculate the total cost of the 2018 state employees’ group insurance program through Wellmark until after the enrollment period ends Nov. 17.

But a preliminary analysis of executive branch employees indicates the state would save $20.5 million, while costs for 18,789 workers would go up at least $11.7 million. The annual cost of the contract is estimated at $312.8 million, nearly $9 million less than now.

However, the numbers supplied by the state’s Department of Management for the calculation do not include regent system employees, retirees, state public safety officers still covered under collective bargaining and two smaller classifications that likely would push the overall employee cost share higher.

Judge upholds Iowa's collective bargaining law

DES MOINES — A Polk County judge has upheld the constitutionality of Iowa’s revamped collective bargaining law, rejecting in a ruling Monday a union’s contention its members do not receive equal treatment under changes adopted by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed into law last February by former Gov. Terry Branstad.

There are about 5,800 regents merit-covered employees and about 4,600 retirees in the 2017 plan year. Retirees bear the full cost of premiums.

“It’s going to be a significant cost shift,” said Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, the state’s largest public-sector union.

He noted the 2018 plan redesign replacing five insurance options with just two new options could mean considerably higher premiums and more out-of-pocket costs for workers who got a 1 percent raise.

“It’s atrocious,” he added. “They’re trying to balance their budget on the backs of hardworking men and women.”

Higher premiums

Figures from Administrative Services show that full-time AFSCME state employees covered under the least expensive option now pay $20 a month for either a single or family plan. Under the new design, that will go to $40 per month under the single rate or $150 per family for the Iowa Choice option; or $93 a month for single coverage and $273 per family under the National Choice option.

Currently, those employees can choose also more expensive plans with enhanced benefits — ranging up to $335 a month for the costliest option, figures show. So it’s possible that despite the overall cost increase to the employees, some could see premiums decrease if they move from the most expensive family plan in 2017 to either family plan in 2018.

Under both Wellmark options, there would be a $250 deductible for single coverage and $500 for family coverage. Copays for visits to a primary care provider would be $15 or $30 for specialists. Out-of-pocket expenses would be capped at $1,000 for single coverage and $2,000 for families.

While the redesigned plans mark a substantial cost increase to many, the new premium rates are far less than what the average Iowan pays for health insurance offered through the workplace.

A 2016 employer benefits study by D.P. Lind Benchmark, a research firm in Clive, found average employee contributions in Iowa were $1,112 for a single plan and $4,840 for a family plan.

Under the new rates, the state employees would annually pay between $480 for the cheapest single plan and $3,276 for the costliest family plan.

In past years, when public employees were allowed to bargain for salary as well as benefits, many chose to forgo larger salary increases to avoid higher premiums.

Administrative Services Director Janet Phipps said state officials did not ask Wellmark Blue Cross-Blue Shield to “re-price” the current group plan because they were looking for a new design with two options — Iowa Choice, an HMO offering access to providers in Iowa and contiguous counties, and National Choice, a preferred-provider organization with a wider provider network.

Republicans United

Republicans on the Iowa Executive Council — Gov. Kim Reynolds, State Auditor Mary Mosiman, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate — approved the new design. But State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, the lone Democrat, voted against it.

“The state is offering a lot less,” he said. “There’s absolutely no say for employees. This is really, ‘Here’s what you get.’ It’s take it or leave it — Hobson’s choice. There’s no input from the other side. No consideration at all. I think it’s unfair.”

But Reynolds, according to a spokeswoman, “supports the change as it’s a step in the right direction of having shared cost responsibility between employer and employee on behalf of Iowa taxpayers.”

Up until February, employee fringe benefits such as health insurance were covered under a collective bargaining law that dated to the 1970s. Former Gov. Terry Branstad repeatedly demanded that state employees pay a greater share of their health insurance costs, but his efforts were thwarted by binding arbitration rulings that favored union workers’ bargaining positions that often sacrificed higher wages to keep their health costs down.

During the 2017 legislative session, majority Republicans in the House and Senate revamped the collective bargaining law to remove health insurance and other benefits as subjects for negotiations — except for the State Police Officers Council, whose roughly 600 members still bargain with the state over benefits.

Branstad signed House File 291 into law before he resigned as governor to become U.S. ambassador to China.

“They did this to hurt public-sector employees,” said Homan. “They did this because Terry Branstad has wanted to go after state employees’ health insurance. Where’s Terry Branstad right now? He’s on the premium health insurance in China.”

Last month, a Polk County judge upheld the 2017 collective bargaining law rewrite. AFSCME officials are deciding whether to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Before leaving office, Branstad touted a voluntary plan to combine state, county, city and school districts into a governmental pool that could be in a better bargaining position to secure health insurance coverage at lower premium costs for employees.

But the idea never was offered to the Legislature, and Administrative Services officials say their focus has been on redesigning the 2018 insurance package.

Currently, it costs $521.9 million to cover 29,854 public employees through Dec. 31, with the state’s share estimated at $496.8 million and the employees’ share at nearly $25.1 million.

In calendar year 2016, the state paid $463.8 million for its employees’ group insurance program, while the 31,748 covered participants contributed nearly $20.8 million of the overall $484.6 million contract.

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Democratic gubernatorial candidates blame Iowa Republicans for 'gross mismanagement' during Mason City stop


MASON CITY | Five of the seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates -- and a representative for the sixth -- spoke to dozens of people about their platforms and what needs to be done to fix Iowa's political issues during a meet-and-greet at a Mason City home Monday night. 

About 150 North Iowans gathered inside a living room, kitchen and on a second-floor balcony as they listened to Democratic hopefuls Fred Hubbell, Jon Neiderbach, Dr. Andy McGuire, Nate Boulton and John Norris discuss the need for better healthcare, more public education funding and increasing the wages of the working class, among other topics.

The event, "One Year to Election," was held at the residence of Dr. Gary Swenson and Dean Genth, vice chair of the Cerro Gordo County Democratic Central Committee.

State Rep. Todd Prichard, Charles City, and Rep. Sharon Steckman, Mason City, spoke to the crowd before the candidates' speeches, and urged those gathered to continue to support Democrats running for state legislature.

"The enthusiasm in this room, we got to carry that forward," Steckman said.

Those who spoke emphasized the need to replace Gov. Kim Reynolds and other Republicans.

Hubbell, chairman of the Iowa Power Fund, criticized Republicans for mishandling budget issues during the past couple of years.

"I don't want our state run into the ground with lousy fiscal policy, and a legislature that is running us down, down, down," Hubbell said.

Neiderbach, who has worked in the state's Department of Human Services, said much change is needed at the state level of Iowa politics.

"We have to change the basic dynamic in Des Moines," Neiderbach said. "Not only are the policies wrong ... but what's really scary is the gross mismanagement of our budget and entire government operations."

McGuire, former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, said she has heard displeasure from many on the campaign trail about current state politics.

"I have people telling me that the Branstad-Reynolds administration is putting profits over people," McGuire told those gathered.

Boulton, a state senator who represents northeast Des Moines and Pleasant Hill, argued Iowa's last two governors failed to help Iowans, despite a Republican-controlled Legislature.

"We saw Bransted and Reynolds with full control of state government," Boulton said. "And what did they do with that opportunity? They blew it."

Norris, co-owner of the State Public Policy Group, sided with Boulton concerning the current administration.

"They've got a dark heart in Gov. Reynolds and this Legislature today," Norris said.

The candidates remained optimistic about the state's outlook, saying an increase in public education funding would lead to more positive opportunities for children in the near future. 

Putting more money in the pockets of working class and less toward corporations would help alleviate some of the economic issues, the candidates said, who also called for the end of Medicaid privatization.

"We have to have a Democrat that wins in 2018, and beyond that," said Kate Revaux, political director for union leader Cathy Glasson.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, the Globe Gazette reported around 70 people were present. That estimate should have been around 150, according to an event organizer. Also, Sharon Steckman is a state representative, not a senator. The Globe apologizes for the errors.

Texas church gunman sent hostile text messages before attack

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The gunman who killed 26 people at a small-town Texas church had a history of domestic violence and sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, a member of First Baptist, before the attack in which he fired at least 450 rounds at helpless worshippers, authorities said Monday.

A day after the deadliest mass shooting in state history, the military acknowledged that it did not submit the shooter's criminal history to the FBI, as required by the Pentagon. If his past offenses had been properly shared, they would have prevented him from buying a gun.

Investigators also revealed that sheriff's deputies had responded to a domestic violence call in 2014 at Devin Patrick Kelley's home involving a girlfriend who became his second wife. Later that year, he was formally ousted from the Air Force for a 2012 assault on his ex-wife in which he choked her and struck her son hard enough to fracture his skull.

In the tiny town of Sutherland Springs, population 400, grieving townspeople were reeling from their losses. The dead ranged from 18 months to 77 years old and included multiple members of some families.

"Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners. We were a very close family," said the pastor's wife Sherri Pomeroy, who, like her husband, was out of town when the attack happened. "Now most of our church family is gone."

The couple's 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, was among those killed.

Kelley's mother-in-law sometimes attended services there, but the sheriff said she was not at church Sunday.

The massacre appeared to stem from a domestic situation and was not racially or religiously motivated, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said. He did not elaborate.

Based on evidence at the scene, investigators believe Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders, one of whom was armed, and crashed his car.

The 26-year-old shooter also used his cellphone to tell his father he had been shot and did not think he would survive, authorities said.

While in the military, Kelley served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his 2014 discharge, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

He was discharged for the assault involving his previous wife and her child and had served a year of confinement after a court-martial. Under Pentagon rules, information about convictions of military personnel for crimes such as assault should be submitted to the FBI's Criminal Justice Investigation Services Division.

Stefanek said the service is launching a review of its handling of the case and taking a comprehensive look at its databases to ensure other cases have been reported correctly.

"This was a very — based on preliminary reports — a very deranged individual. A lot of problems over a long period of time," President Donald Trump said when asked about the shooting as he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a joint news conference.

Once the shooting started, there was probably "no way" for congregants to escape, Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. said.

The gunman, dressed in black tactical gear, fired an assault rifle as he walked down the center aisle during worship services. He turned around and continued shooting on his way out of the building, Tackitt said.

About 20 other people were wounded. Ten of them still were hospitalized Monday in critical condition.

Investigators collected hundreds of shell casings from the church, along with 15 empty magazines that held 30 rounds each.

Kelley lived in New Braunfels, about 35 miles north of the church, authorities said. Investigators were reviewing social media posts he made in the days before the attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon.

On Sunday, the attacker pulled into a gas station across from the church, about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. He crossed the street and started firing the rifle at the church, then continued firing after entering the white wood-frame building, Martin said.

As he left, the shooter was confronted by an armed resident who had grabbed his own rifle and exchanged fire with Kelley.

The armed man who confronted Kelley had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who said he was driving past the church as the shooting happened. The armed man asked to get in Langendorff's truck, and the pair followed as the gunman drove away.

"He jumped in my truck and said, 'He just shot up the church. We need to go get him.' And I said 'Let's go,'" Langendorff said.

The pursuit reached speeds up to 90 mph. The gunman eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed. The armed man walked up to the vehicle with his gun drawn, and the attacker did not move. Police arrived about five minutes later, Langendorff said.

The assailant was dead in his vehicle. He had three gunshot wounds — two from where the armed man hit him in the leg and the torso and the third self-inflicted wound to the head, authorities said.

"There was no thinking about it. There was just doing. That was the key to all this. Act now. Ask questions later," he said.

Three weapons were recovered. A Ruger AR-556 rifle was found at the church, and two handguns were recovered from the gunman's vehicle, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The assailant did not have a license to carry a concealed handgun, Martin said.

Municipal campaigns over in North Iowa; now up to voters

MASON CITY | The speeches, forums and campaigning are over. Now it is time for the people to speak with their ballots.

Voters throughout North Iowa and across the state will elect new leaders Tuesday.

Some voters will make decisions on specific issues that will impact their communities.

In Cerro Gordo County, the biggest example is in Mason City where voters will elect a new mayor, two new council members, park board members and will decide on two measures related to the city's River City Renaissance downtown renovation plan.

One of the measures asks for consideration on whether to enter into a lease agreement with Southbridge Mall concerning the proposed ice arena/multipurpose center. The other measure asks voters to decide on whether to issue up to $14 million in bonds for costs related to a proposed hotel.

North Iowa Voting Need-to-Know

Where do I vote? See a list of Cerro Gordo County polling places here.  If you live outside of Cerro Gordo County, check on your local county auditor's website.

Interest in the issues has drawn an all-time high in early voting in Mason City with 1,717 casting absentee votes as of 3 p.m. Monday, easily surpassing the previous high of 1,385 in 2013. It also tops the total turnout in 2015 of 1,397, a 7 percent turnout.

Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Mason City, Clear Lake and Ventura. They are open noon to 8 p.m. in all other areas of the county.