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What sometimes gets forgotten about the statewide public teacher and school service personnel strike in 2018 is that it wasn’t only about wages.

After 10 days, teachers went back to work with a 5% bump in pay, but also a promise from Gov. Jim Justice to stabilize costs for health insurance and benefits that public school employees receive through the Public Employees Insurance Agency. Some who went on strike even said that part of the problem is what led to the walkout, and negotiations for a pay raise, while certainly appreciated in a state that doesn’t compensate its public teachers well, missed the point.

There’s been less talk about PEIA since that strike, as teacher unions have battled charter school legislation and sparred with the governor and state agencies over the safety of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. But just because the issue hasn’t been on everyone’s lips doesn’t mean the problem went away.

While premium hikes through PEIA — which also covers other state government employees — have mostly been held at bay, a plan presented to the agency’s finance board this week projects that premiums will go up by 9% in the 2023-24 fiscal year, then by 16% the following year, and another 12% over the two years after that. The rate hikes are needed, to cover projected increases in medical costs. In all, it will mean a total of about $50 million in premium increases over a three-year period, with a $201 million cost to taxpayers.

Teacher unions say their members won’t be able to afford such steep hikes, with West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee saying “Doom is coming,” unless the promises from 2018 are somehow upheld.

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So, what happened?

After Justice promised to fix PEIA, he formed a task force to tackle the job. He also authorized a one-time infusion of cash from the state to ward off immediate rate hikes. That temporary financial boost, along with better-than-expected returns on investments, froze premium rates for four years, including the upcoming fiscal year.

The task force conducted public meetings throughout 2018, seeking input and apparently developing a long-term solution to the PEIA problem. Then, it dropped off the face of the earth. The last time the task force met was in January 2019. None of its recommendations were ever taken up.

PEIA has been out of sight, out of mind for Justice and the Legislature. As a result, the problem is much more critical now than it was in 2018. What Justice did in 2018 bought some time. It’s conceivable that he or the Legislature would do something similar, to soften the blow of upcoming rate increases. But what good is buying time if you don’t do anything with it?

Eventually, a long-term solution is needed. The trouble is that solution likely involves a steady revenue source in a state where excess funding is a cruel joke. In any case, the state needs to figure this out. Temporary fixes only make the issue more difficult down the road.

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