Gov. Fletcher hears protesters, then applause

September 24, 2004|TODD KLEFFMAN

Gov. Ernie Fletcher heard prolonged applause and kind words during appearances Thursday in Danville and Harrodsburg.

But those bouquets came to Fletcher inside the Mercer County Courthouse, where he presented a $200,000 check to repair rural roads, and later at the Danville Convention Center, where he addressed a hand-picked audience gathered for a belated grand-opening celebration.

The mood was markedly different, however, outside those venues, where scores of teachers, school employees and other state workers greeted the governor with angry signs and emotional stories about how Fletcher's new health insurance plan was like a bad disease.

Melanie Murphy, a Mercer County art teacher, carried a sign reading "Ernie Fletcher: Destroying Hope," which she said was a reference to Fletcher's campaign slogan of "restoring hope."


"This will make state employees' standard of living drop substantially. That's not restoring hope, that's destroying it," said Murphy, one of about 40 protesters who marched in front of the Mercer County Courthouse. "This is going to have a ripple affect all over the state because we'll have less disposable income to spend, which is going to hurt businesses."

He waded into crowd of protesters

Fletcher did not shy away from the naysayers. He waded into the crowd of protesters in Mercer County and defended his plan as the best available option for about 10 minutes before going inside in courthouse. The state's health care insurance was a" train wreck" that had already happened when he took office nine months ago, the governor said.

"We inherited this," he said. "Give us time."

At the Danville Convention Center, the crowd of more than 100 protesters was kept about 150 feet away from the entrance and was left to set off their car alarms and shout "Shame on you" and "Teachers are the working poor" at the governor as he entered the building. About an hour later, however, Fletcher did engage the 25 who had remained outside.

"I understand the problem - it's money," Fletcher told the Danville crowd. "We took the amount of money we had available and got the most coverage we could with it."

Under the new health insurance contract that Fletcher signed, state workers will pay significantly higher premiums and deductibles to get what they say is inferior coverage.

"The intolerable can't be tolerated any longer. We pay more, we get less and we have no choice," said Paula Tetirick, a library media specialist at Danville's Jenny Rogers Elementary, whose sign said, "In Kentucky, a bad plan is the only plan."

"I work hard. I take care of children. I'm held to high standards. I'm highly educated. Now, benefits have been reduced to nearly nil. That's a real problem," she said.

Flonnie Shelton, a "cafeteria technician" at Crab Orchard Elementary, carried a sign that read, "We cook, we slave, we ain't got it made." The new health plan will cost her $124 a month more than she pays under the current plan, she said.

"I've been working there 28 years and I'll probably be taking home the same pay, with this increase, that I was making when I started 28 years ago. That ain't right."

Renewing current plan would cost additional $240 million

Fletcher said that renewing the current health plan would have cost an additional $240 million this year, a 40 percent increase. The state's insurance rolls are overburdened with older "high risk" employees and retirees who make a lot of hospital visits and use a lot of prescription medicine, while younger, healthier employees have chosen not to enroll in the program.

"That raises costs," he said.

After school employees vigorously sounded off about Fletcher's plan and planned a statewide strike next month, Fletcher called a special session of legislature for Oct. 5 to deal with insurance issues. Several legislators and some of the governor's own officials have said there is little that can be done now to alter the contract that Fletcher has already signed.

"It's a little late to ask for help now, after he has already done the deal," said Bryan Clark, a teacher a Mercer County High School, who said he is already considering moving to another career. "I think it's just a political smoke screen. I don't think he's really going to listen. I think he's going to treat us the same way he did legislators on the budget: It's my way or the highway."

Fletcher said later, however, that legislators have the power to make changes to the plan during the special session and "capture" money to help offset the increases in healthcare costs, without raising taxes. Lawmakers have access to restricted funds that he does not, like the coal severance tax, that they can "raid" and there are corporate tax loopholes that can be closed to raise more revenue, he said.

"They can change the structure of the plan," he said. "They can move the Capitol if they want to."

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