Commentary: Senator wants lawmakers to pay more for health care

May 2, 2012

State Senator Rick Jones of Grand Ledge might want to watch his back for the next few weeks, or maybe, decades. Yesterday, he threatened to violate a time-honored legislative custom.

Lawmakers at all levels are traditionally known for telling the people “do what we say, not what we do.”

For example, it’s fine for them to cut other public employee benefits and pensions, but don’t even dream of suggesting the legislature lessen its own perks. Other retirees may be in danger of losing their health care, but former legislators who have served a mere six years should get low-cost health care for life.

Sound fair to you? Well, it didn’t sound fair to Senator Jones. He is 59, a former Eaton County sheriff, and until the voters sent him to the state house eight years ago, he’d worked in law enforcement all his life. He may have a sense of justice.

Yesterday, he showed clear signs of that. Jones  announced  he would introduce a bill to require legislators and retired legislators to pay just as much for their state-sponsored health insurance as other public employees. The shocked silence from his colleagues must have been deafening. As it is now, serve in the House, Senate or both for as little as six years, and you get health insurance forever, at only 10 percent of the cost.

You can start getting coverage while still in the legislature. In fact, 50 state lawmakers now qualify, including Mr. Jones.

This is something that has gotten more expensive for taxpayers, thanks to the revolving door of term limits. According to the Detroit News, 220 former legislators are grandfathered in to the current sweetheart system.

Last year, there was some uneasiness about this, and the lawmakers passed a law cutting off future lawmakers -- but making sure all but two of the current ones are covered for life. Nobody till now has said much about that. But currently, the state senate is considering a bill which would require all public school and university retirees to pay 20 percent of their cost. Additionally, they couldn’t qualify for any benefits until they are 60, which Senator Jones soon will be. Yesterday, he said:

“Senators should be paying 20 percent like we are asking other public employees to do.” He added, “We have no right to ask other retired public employees to pay something that we’re not paying also.”  That sounds pretty fair.

But there certainly wasn’t any stampede to co-sponsor his bill. The House Minority Leader, Democrat Richard Hammel, did say he wasn’t going to use his state health insurance. However, he has coverage anyway, as a General Motors retiree.

The problem is that everybody needs health care, and it more and more affects decisions about how we spend our lives. Senator Jones doesn’t think some should be more equal than others. Yet he and his fellow Republicans are bitterly opposed to President Obama’s plan to ensure that everyone is able to buy some form of coverage. They do have universal coverage in a country very close to us called Canada. Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of Canadians about our lack of this. Most had a simple explanation as to why this is. Putting it politely, they think we’re nuts.