Our Turn: There’s room for compromise on paid family leave

Published: 5/17/2019 12:10:27 AM
Modified: 5/17/2019 12:10:16 AM

In recent months, the topic of family and medical leave insurance has been hotly debated. If you have been listening to the sentiment behind the partisan rhetoric, it is apparent that an important consensus has emerged in New Hampshire – that, for the benefit of individuals, families and businesses alike, the state should find a way to promote family and medical leave insurance (FMLI) coverage, and that this is the year to do it. Many larger employers already provide paid FMLI benefits through self-insurance, but this is not a viable option for most mid-sized and smaller businesses. So the question is, what should the state do to help?

Gov. Chris Sununu and the New Hampshire Legislature have put forward two different legislative proposals that would each implement a statewide family and medical leave insurance program. The governor’s proposal has been removed from House Bill 2 by the Legislature, and Senate Bill 1, the Legislature’s proposal, has been recently vetoed by the governor. Now that each side has rejected the other’s plan to promote FMLI coverage, some may be thinking that the debate is over for this session. But we believe that it is still possible to get FMLI across the finish line this year.

Most New Hampshire citizens who have been following this issue are aware of the basic design of the Legislature’s proposal. It is a social insurance program – every employee who doesn’t already have some form of FMLI coverage through work is required to participate and pays premiums through payroll deduction or employer contribution – and the claims are administered by a commercial carrier. The basic design of the governor’s “Twin State Family Voluntary Leave Plan” is less well understood, and it is worth taking some time to understand the differences.

Instead of all-in social insurance, the governor is proposing a voluntary commercial insurance plan that would start by making available to employees of the state of New Hampshire commercial FMLI coverage. Then, by leveraging the purchasing power and economies of scale derived from this state employee insurance contract, it would make available to other private and public employers and employees in the state, on a voluntary basis, advantageously priced FMLI. In order to gain further purchasing leverage, the governor’s proposal authorizes the state to jointly procure with the state of Vermont an FMLI contract contingent upon each state enacting appropriately similar authorizing legislation. It is a voluntary approach that seeks to entice employers and employees to sign up by introducing a mechanism to subsidize the coverage and to simplify enrollment.

For over a year now, the New Hampshire Insurance Department, the Department of Employment Security and the governor’s staff have been working with stakeholders and industry experts to design a voluntary plan that will work for the state. We have conducted an informational process that brought useful information from national carriers about how a voluntary program could be designed to meet the goal of promoting affordable and accessible coverage to employees of mid-sized and small businesses.

The benefits to the state of increasing the rate of FMLI coverage are manifold: It will help attract and retain workers, including younger workers; it will enable parents to bond with biological, adopted or foster children; it will help meet the needs of an aging population; it will advance the health of the state’s workforce; and it will enhance worker morale and productivity. There is still time for lawmakers and Gov. Sununu to work together and make paid family leave a reality for New Hampshire. As commissioners, we are not policymakers, but we are in a position to see that there is room for compromise. It is our hope that this is the year that New Hampshire gets FMLI done.

(John Elias is commissioner of the N.H. Insurance Department. George Copadis is commissioner of the N.H. Department of Employment Security.)

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