State senators blasted Maryland Secretary of Personnel Hilda E. Ford yesterday, telling her to rework a plan that could dramatically increase health insurance premiums for tens of thousands of state workers.
In a special meeting of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, legislators said the plan -- which leaked out in recent days -- bushwhacked workers with increases many of them can't afford and practically none of them anticipated.
"This is a sinister and mean-spirited plan," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican.
"I don't think this is something we can live with," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.
The Blue Cross/Blue Shield preferred provider plan, as it is known, covers the majority of the state's workers, including 40,000 active and 18,000 retired employees.
State personnel officials say, however, that it is not paying for itself.
To avoid a deficit of $40 million next year, Ms. Ford had planned to increase the insurance premiums by as much as five times.
For instance, a family of three or more currently pays $26 every two weeks for the plan. Beginning in January, the same family would have to pay $147.
Ms. Ford said she would return to the committee Nov. 1 with alternatives to the massive premium increase.
She did not, however, say what measures she might take to reduce the cost of the plan to state employees.
After the meeting, committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the state might be able to use a higher deductible and reduced benefits to make the plan more affordable.
He added that -- despite budget constraints -- the state could also absorb some of the costs.
"We can do it," he said.
The meeting was called yesterday by legislators responding to complaints from state workers and a newspaper report.
During the meeting, legislators also criticized Ms. Ford for failing to let them know the increase was coming.
By law, Ms. Ford is supposed to meet quarterly with a health insurance advisory council, which acts as a liaison to the legislature and state workers.
Ms. Ford said the council had not met in at least a year.
"You have absolutely violated the law, in my opinion," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Baltimore Democrat.
Ms. Ford said it was an oversight that occurred during the tumult of staff changes and layoffs, not a deliberate attempt to keep the premium increases quiet.
"You can charge me with carelessness, and I concede," she said. "It is something I regret very much."
If the premium increase were approved, Ms. Ford said, she expected many workers to switch to much less expensive health maintenance organizations, of which the state offers at least four.
The preferred provider program covers up to 100 percent of "reasonable" costs with a small co-payment for some procedures.
Ms. Ford noted that many businesses have phased out such programs in recent years as health care costs have risen.
Many state employees have complained that such a move to managed care would force them to give up their private physicians.
In an interview, Joseph Adler, the deputy personnel secretary, said the state would also offer workers an alternative Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan.
That plan, which would allow employees to keep their physicians, would cover 80 percent of medical costs after a deductible of $250 per person, or $500 per family, had been met.