Michael Echols

State Rep. Michael Echols says legislation previously opposed by the state teachers lobby has been amended to ensure state retirees are not deprived of health insurance plans through Medicare.

In its original form, House Bill 325 required that any state or school district retiree without dependents participating in the state Office of Group Benefits’ health plans could choose only from Medicare Advantage plans instead of any OGB-sponsored health plans, including Original Medicare plans. OGB offers health insurance and life insurance to certain state departments as well as their employees or retirees.

The Louisiana Retired Teachers Association declared its opposition to Echols’ legislation earlier during the legislative session. Members of the group’s local chapter, Ouachita Retired Teachers Association, also expressed concerns.

“What the bill is trying to do, in a nutshell, is make teachers under OGB have a Medicare Advantage Plan, but if we want a Medicare Advantage, we can get it already,” said Beth Wofford, a retired teacher and officer with the Ouachita Retired Teachers Association. “We should not be forced to have one. It’s a free country.”

Echols told The Ouachita Citizen earlier this week that he initially proposed House Bill 325 because OGB had failed to notify certain state retirees of all health plans available to them prior to enrollment.

“Initially, I proposed the legislation because certain retirees weren’t being presented all options through OGB,” said Echols, R-Monroe. “There’s been steerage to the commercial plans without even presenting the other options or telling them they would lose their other doctors. I actually have an amendment that is truer to my intention, that would make OGB present all plans available to retirees.”

Under its amended form, the legislation no longer restricts retirees’ choices to Medicare Advantage plans but required OGB to “...provide the retiree with a side-by-side comparison of all plans, including Medicare Advantage plans, that shows a comparison of costs and benefits.”

In its amended form, the legislation would not take anything away from anyone, Echols said.

“I never had an intent to hurt retirees or to take anything away from them,” Echols added.

Becky Solley, Ouachita Retired Teachers Association’s legislative liaison, also expressed concerns about the original legislation’s effects.

“Our fear is that it would restrict the freedom of choice,” Solley said. “We believe it should be members’ choice and not mandated by state law.”

Solley said the amended legislation “might do,” but she believed it would be prudent to obtain input from OGB among others to determine how the amended legislation would affect retirees.

“We want to see what works and what doesn’t work,” Solley said.

Wofford expressed concern that legislation similar to HB 325’s original form could crop up in future legislative sessions.

“There’s not really any safety because it could be presented next session,” Wofford said.

According to Wofford, she had a high regard for Echols but questioned his work on the legislation in light of the connections between OGB and Vantage Health Plan. Vantage is one of four companies across the state offering a Medicare Advantage Plan for state employees and retirees through OGB.

Many of the legislation’s critics pointed out Echols’ role as the director of business development for Vantage Health Plan in Monroe as well as his stake in the company.

In an apparent reference to similar criticism, Echols dismissed remarks about connections between the legislation and his stake in Vantage as speculation common to the legislative process.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of speculation from the unions and others,” said Echols, with a laugh. “But that’s just part of the process.”

An opinion from the state Board of Ethics earlier this year found that Echols could propose legislation affecting OGB, even in matters in which he might have a substantial economic interest, though the Board of Ethics diminished Echols’ economic interest in contracts between Vantage and OGB.

In a Jan. 28 email to the Board of Ethics, Echols disclosed ownership in Vantage Holdings Inc., the parent company of Vantage Health Plan. According to Echols, he and his wife, Christie, owned .21-percent of Vantage Holdings. Echols’ father-in-law, Vantage Holdings President Dr. Gary Jones, and other immediate family owned a total of 1.37-percent of Vantage Holdings, Echols said.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana is the majority owner of Vantage Holdings.

Echols asked whether the Code of Governmental Ethics would prohibit or limit him from proposing legislation affecting healthcare benefits offered to state employees or retirees, in light of his ties to Vantage Health Plan.

On behalf of the Board of Ethics, attorney David Bordelon pointed out that Echols’ stake in the company was insignificant.

“Since Michael Echols holds less than 2-percent ownership collectively he does not have a controlling interest in Vantage Health Plan Inc,” Bordelon wrote. “As a result Vantage Health Plan is not prohibited by (state law) from entering into contracts with OGB that involve the Legislature. Additionally neither Michael Echols nor his father-in-law Patrick Jones receives any compensation as a result of the OGB contract Therefore neither are in any way interested in the OGB contract.”

According to the Board of Ethics, a ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge extended certain privileges or protections to state legislators if they acted in a way contrary to state laws governing their involvement in matters in which they had a substantial economic interest.

“As a result of the privilege Michael Echols would not be prohibited by the Code from participating in legislative matters in which either himself, his father-in-law or Vantage Health Plan Inc has a substantial economic interest,” Bordelon wrote.

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