Governor Christie's health care reforms will save less next year than expected after fewer than 1 percent of workers chose cheaper insurance options — just as new figures show the cost of providing benefits continues to spike.
Nearly all of the 397,809 eligible government workers chose to stick with familiar health plans and their higher premiums, Treasury figures from November enrollment show. Reluctant enrollees largely skipped the new choices Christie put forward, which would have reduced the premium cost shared by each worker and their government employers. Actuaries had predicted 2 percent of workers would make the shift this year.
Out of the 309 workers who did change plans — less than 1 percent — only 15 of them chose the highest-deductible plans, Treasury officials said.
What the state owes toward state workers' post-employment health benefits grew by $3.5 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, an increase that alone eclipses the predicted 10-year savings of $3.1 billion from the new public-worker health reforms
, which also ask workers to pay a larger share of their health insurance costs than ever before.
By the numbers
In June, Governor Christie changed the law on public health benefits, making public workers pay more for their health coverage and offering new kinds of health care options. Here's a look at the numbers behind the changes:
397,809 eligible state, local and school workers in November selected which health plan they wanted for 2012 coverage.
309 selected to change plans.
15 chose the high-deductible plans with significantly cheaper premium costs shared by each worker and their government employers
850,000 workers and family members are affected.
•New Jersey will spend a projected $5.2 billion to cover current and retired state and local workers and their dependents in 2012.
•Current workers will start contributing more next year, paying between 2.25 percent and 17.5 percent of their premiums.
•By 2014, high-paid workers will be required to pay 35 percent of their premiums.
•The state wants all workers to pay an average of 20 percent of health care premiums.
Significant savings may not register by the end of next June, according to Andrew Pratt, a Treasury spokesman.
"It's not going to be a large or significant number," Pratt said Monday.
Health care savings were difficult to estimate, unlike the administration's 30-year projected savings of $120 billion through parallel changes to the public pensions system, Pratt said.
"Over the long term, we expect it to make a serious dent," Pratt said of the savings. "But we don't want to predict it, because it depends on a lot of factors that are either out of our control or too soon to speculate."
Starting next summer, New Jersey state, local and school district workers will be expected to chip in more toward their health care. As the increases come in increments over a four-year period, administration officials expect more workers to select from the set of high-deductible plans.
Workers will end up paying an average of 20 percent of their health premium costs by 2014.
Union leaders who opposed Christie's changes until their passage in June had remained skeptical about whether public workers would try out cheaper health plans this year.
Dudley Burdge, who represented the Communications Workers of America on the State Health Benefits Commission that authorized the plan rates, said enrollment in high-deductible plans would make sense only for the tiny minority of state workers who pay the full cost of their premiums without any state contribution.
"Why would anyone else choose it?" Burdge said Monday of the high-deductible options, which in some cases make employees cover an annual $4,000 in out-of-pocket costs themselves. "It doesn't make financial sense."
Scrutiny of savings
Christie, who touts his success at reforming state pension and benefits over union objections in political forums around the country, has faced scrutiny of how much his policy would actually save.
In June, when he signed the bill, Christie compared New Jersey's new public health care model to one in Indiana, where more than 4 percent of state workers chose high-deductible plans with generous health savings accounts in its rollout year.
Now, 76 percent of workers there pick those plans, according to Indiana data.
However, New Jersey's plans did not match Indiana's, where popular health savings accounts amounted to thousands of dollars for each employee.
New Jersey offered $300 accounts this year as add-ons to certain plans.
An estimate by the governor's office in October said the health care changes would save the state $100 million this year.
But $90 million of that turned out to be possible only through a new model for retiree prescription coverage, an employee group waiver, which is unrelated to Christie's policy changes and only became available coincidentally this year as part of federal health care changes pushed by President Obama.
Health care costs alone have shot up by 9 percent to 11 percent in recent years, a situation that has left many New Jersey towns struggling to cover those bills while abiding by a cap on their power to annually increase their tax levies.
Despite Democrats' widespread criticism of Christie's plan, few state officials have tackled ways to control the price tags for health care charged by medical providers.
Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, introduced legislation to create a state consumer watchdog to combat health insurance cost increases, through the Division of Rate Counsel in the Department of Banking and Insurance.