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Showdown upcoming on senators' insurance

MONTGOMERY (AP) — The State Employees Insurance Board will hold a special meeting in the next few weeks for a showdown between Gov. Bob Riley's administration and the state Senate over providing health insurance for senators at little or no cost.

The battle is the latest from a legislative session that began in March with legislators voting themselves a 61 percent raise and then overriding Riley's veto of the increase.

The legislative session ended June 7 with the Senate passing a resolution — by an unrecorded voice vote — to have the Senate seek participation in a health insurance program that the State Employees Insurance Board runs for city and county governments.

The premium and benefits committee of the State Employees Insurance Board met Tuesday and, at the request of Riley's state finance director, voted unanimously to have a meeting of the full board at the Senate's convenience to discuss the health insurance resolution. Members said they will discuss if the resolution is legal and whether senators should be allowed to join the program.

But some board members have already made up their minds. "I've gone on the record as being opposed to the insurance," board member William Malone said.

William Ashmore, CEO of the insurance program, said he expects to schedule the special meeting before the next regular board meeting on Aug. 15.

"All the cards need to be face up on the table and everybody needs to defend their position," said state Finance Director Jim Main, who chairs the premium and benefits committee.

The sponsor of the Senate resolution, Sen. E.B. McClain, D-Midfield, did not attend the committee's meeting Tuesday. But in an interview later, he said most states provide low-cost health insurance for legislators, and he was trying to get the same benefit for Alabama's senators.

McCain expected a hostile reaction. "Any time you talk about something for us, it's a touchy situation," he said.

McCain said he did not know who would represent the Senate at the upcoming meeting.

State law currently allows state legislators to participate in the health insurance plan for state employees, provided they pay the full cost. For that, they pay $460 monthly for individual coverage and $640 for family coverage. The Senate's resolution seeks to have them treated like regular state workers, whose insurance costs are underwritten by taxpayers.

State workers pay nothing for individual coverage and $180 monthly for family coverage. Both plans have a $22 per month surcharge for smokers.

Traditionally, full-time elected officials have been able to participate in the state employees' insurance program, but the part-time Legislature has not.

Riley and Main both have family coverage through the state employees' program and both pay the smoking surcharge, press secretary Tara Hutchison said.

Riley and Main have sent letters to the insurance board urging it to deny participation to the Senate.

"This resolution is a brazen attempt by state senators to give themselves free or low-cost health insurance at the taxpayers' expense. Such action is illegal and, done in the last hour of the session on an unrecorded voice vote, it perverts government to the illegitimate pursuit of self-interest and private gain," his letter said.

Riley and Main said the move is illegal. They say a resolution can't amend a state law that lets legislators have health insurance provided they pay the full cost. Also, state law allows city and county governments to participate in the state health insurance program provided there is no financial obligation to the state, but if senators get cheaper insurance through the program, there would be a cost to the state, they said.

McClain said the resolution was an application to the board, and it wasn't mandatory. He said no matter how the issue turns out, he won't be affected because he has health insurance through his employer, U.S. Pipe.

Ashmore, CEO of the insurance program, said his staff has much research to do, and he hasn't taken a position on which side is correct in the insurance battle.

The state allocates $775 per month for health insurance for each employee. Ashmore said about $300 is for the actual employee and the remainder covers family members and state retirees.

Using the $300 figure, if all 35 senators got free individual coverage, the cost to the state would be $126,000 annually.

Main said Tuesday he's more concerned about the legal principle than the cost.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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