Sununu, N.H. Republicans float private plan for paid family, medical leave

  • FILE - In this photo taken Wednesday June 29, 2016 Executive Councilor Chris Sununu listens during the Council meeting Concord, N.H. Sununu is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. New Hampshire has struggled to attract and retain young people, a trend that's likely to continue without major policy changes. While the gubernatorial candidates propose solutions to the problem in bits and pieces, few have a full scale of ideas to address New Hampshire's demographic challenges.(AP Photo/Jim Cole/FILE) Jim Cole

  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu listens during a televised debate at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 10/19/2018 6:24:08 PM

As Democratic gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly has made paid family leave a central focus of her campaign, Gov. Chris Sununu and state Republicans say they’re tinkering at a proposal of their own.

For months, state Sen. Bob Giuda has been working with the governor’s office, insurance carriers, the Department of Employment Security and the Insurance Department to design an opt-in program, he said Friday.

But the proposal is still in very early stages of development, Giuda and others familiar with it have said. And it carries a twist: The plan will likely need to be backed up by contract negotiations by the State Employee Association in order to be successful, according to Giuda.

The program, first publicly announced by Sununu on Thursday, is being called a “public-private partnership” and is intended to bring in private carriers to offer plans to state and private-sector workers without imposing a mandate.

“The governor is working on a plan that provides an elective benefit, with zero dollars in startup costs to the taxpayers, and the costs of ongoing operations covered by private insurance carriers,” said Jayne Millerick, the governor’s chief of staff, in a statement Friday.

Millerick’s statement offered the first glimpse of a program long teased by the governor, which he described to New Hampshire Public Radio Thursday. And it comes after a weeks-long campaign by Kelly to trumpet a plan by state Democrats proposed earlier this year and to criticize Sununu for helping defeat it.

Under Giuda’s and Sununu’s proposal, the state would contract with a private insurer to offer a paid family and medical leave policy to 10,000 of the state’s public employees, with costs covered by the state, Millerick said.

That policy would also be made available to private employees, and would likely require interested employees to pay premiums, according to Millerick. The state employee policy would provide a baseline for other private insurers to base their own plans, creating a competitive market that Millerick said would keep premiums down.

It’s a marked contrast to a Democratic plan proposed by Sen. Dan Feltes and Rep. Mary Gile of Concord, which would have created a state-run, opt-out program focused solely on the private sector, and which Sununu opposed after raising concerns around solvency. By putting the onus on private insurers, the policies can be put forth without risking state funds, Millerick said.

But Giuda’s plan is a ways from completion, or even viability, he said Friday. Nine insurers are presently considering it, but all will likely want to carry out their own actuarial analyses of the proposed New Hampshire market before deciding to join it, Giuda said. And before that happens, Giuda is hoping to send out a mass survey to businesses to get input on what kinds of policies they and their employees would support, he added.

“This could be a year in the making,” he said. “We don’t want to rush in and then regret it later. There are a lot of moving pieces to this.”

Among the most-involved insurers are Aflac, Unom and Anthem, Giuda said. Lincoln, Hartford, Matrix, Prudential, Met Life and Sun Life have also been involved in discussions, he added. None of the insurers could be immediately contact Friday. But Giuda said they haven’t given any commitments yet.

“They don’t know if it will work or not,” he said. “If it’s a market and they can make money on it, of course they’re doing it. I don’t sense skepticism. I sense caution.” The questionnaire to businesses and the actuarial tests they carry out will help to clear that question up, he said.

The stakeholders perhaps most important to the program’s success, however, are the state’s four employee unions, Giuda said. Without buy-in from them, the insurers will likely not have a broad enough market to justify the risk, he said.

“Without that piece, I would be surprised if it would work,” he said.

Giuda said he has had discussions with the State Employee Association, the biggest of the public sector unions. Brian Hawkins, the government relations coordinator for the SEA, confirmed that he and another SEA representative met with the senator over the summer, but said any negotiations on the SEA’s involvement were in early stages.

“It was all very preliminary, like super preliminary,” he said Friday, adding that Sununu’s radio interview Thursday was the first he’d heard of a comprehensive plan.

“Now if he wants to have a conversation about it, we’d be more than happy to do that,” Hawkins added of the governor. “I don’t know what this looks like as far as: are our employees contributing to something, or is the employer contributing to something? This is news.”

Any addition to the benefits provided to state employees would likely need to come through the collective bargaining negotiations ahead of the next contract in November – a sometimes-fraught process that this year led to a nearly year-long impasse.

Still, Giuda expressed confidence that if the insurers and unions could align around the plan, it would be financially viable.

“The private sector always does it better, cheaper, and so forth,” he said. “So they’re working on it.”

Democrats were less sanguine. Feltes, a co-author of House Bill 628, the Democratic plan that failed earlier in the year, said the proposal “isn’t a plan.”

“To the extent there is a so-called ‘plan,’ it appears to be a mandated income tax on state employees to benefit the insurance lobby,” he added.

And a spokesman for Kelly, Chris Moyer, painted the proposal as a political ploy.

“We’ve been here before,” Moyer said. “When Chris Sununu’s campaigning for governor, he says he’s for paid family leave. Then when Sununu is in office, he blocks it. ... Now, Sununu’s under pressure on the issue, so he’s cooked up a new scheme two weeks before Election Day. Granite Staters know that someone who believes paid family leave is ‘vacation’ like Sununu does will never make it a reality for New Hampshire families.”

Speaking on public radio Thursday, Sununu defended the proposal as a novel approach.

“My plan is looking to actually include the state employees,” he said. “Their plan didn’t. My plan will. That’s a real opportunity for the state. And yes, other states haven’t done it. We’re going to lead the nation, I think, in what we put together.”

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