Lots of hands in S.C. pension and health insurance cookie jars

August 28, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

When it comes to receiving taxpayer-funded state retirement and health insurance benefits, lots of folks have their hands out – and it’s not just government employees.

Certain nonprofit organizations and quasi-government groups participate in the state pension and health insurance systems, which mainly cover state, county and local government agencies, as well as public and charter school districts, according to records provided to The Nerve by the S.C. Public Employee Benefit Authority (PEBA), which administers those programs.

For example, the Municipal Association of South Carolina, which represents 271 incorporated municipalities statewide; South Carolina Association of Counties, which represents all 46 counties; and South Carolina School Boards Association, which represents the governing boards of the state’s 79 public school districts, participate in the state retirement and health insurance systems.

All three nonprofits also are registered state lobbyist principals, according to State Ethics Commission records.

The state-created South Carolina Research Authority, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit that The Nerve has reported extensively about over the years, is part of the state health insurance system, PEBA records show. State-owned utility Santee Cooper, which The Nerve in 2018 revealed had more than $15 billion in total long-term debt in the wake of the abandoned V.C. Summer nuclear project, participates in both the state pension and health plans.

Also included among the total 752 employers in the state health plan and the collective 844 employers in the state general employee and police officer retirement systems are various private nonprofit tourism, economic development and health care organizations, The Nerve’s review found.

The state retirement system is made up of five parts, including separate systems for lawmakers, judges and solicitors, and state National Guard personnel. The Nerve has previously reported about generous pension pay for lawmakers and judges.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018, a total of more than $2.5 billion in employer and employee contributions was collected in all five retirement systems, PEBA records show. As of the start of fiscal 2018, there was an average of about 194,000 contributing state, school and other government employees, and approximately 140,000 retirees and beneficiaries receiving benefits.

The state health insurance system, which includes standard, Medicare supplement and savings plans, insured about 470,000 individuals, including spouses and children, in fiscal 2018. About 179,000 public employees contributed to the system, along with approximately 85,000 retirees, according to PEBA records.

But the state pension and retiree health insurance systems face serious long-term debt, S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom has contended. The latest 30-year debt projections for the pension and retiree health insurance systems are approximately $24 billion and $14 billion, respectively, according to figures provided this week by his office.

In comparison, The Nerve in 2011 and 2012 reported about a projected $17 billion gap in the state pension system and a $9 billion estimated shortfall in the retiree health insurance trust fund.

Besides current state employees and retirees, a state law lists 31 categories or specific organizations that also are eligible to participate in the state health plan, including regional “tourism promotion commissions” funded by the state tourism department, regional transportation authorities and councils of government, local councils on aging, federally qualified health centers, and county First Steps boards.

Among tourism groups participating in the state health plan are the Discover Upcountry Carolina Association, Capital City/Lake Murray Country, and the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Commission, PEBA records show.

Other nonprofit organizations such as the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, South Carolina State Employees Association, South Carolina School Boards Association, and anti-littering organization Palmetto Pride are specifically covered under the state law.

Legislative caucus committees also are eligible to participate by law in the state health plan. PEBA records list the state House Republican Caucus, which represents 80 of the 124 House members, as a participant.

A separate state budget proviso that is renewed annually allows the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board, members of the state Lottery Commission, and county magistrates to participate in the state health plan, provided they pay the full premium costs. As a whole, employers in the system contribute about 77% of the total premiums, according to PEBA.

At last week’s STIB board meeting, several members appeared surprised when informed that a former board chairman and another member, who were not named, had not paid a total of $8,000 in premiums as required under the proviso, which had to be covered by the STIB.

“If we accept that (health insurance benefits), does that mean we got double insurance?” asked state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, during the discussion.

Board chairman John White said none of the current non-legislator board members has state health insurance authorized by the proviso, adding that board members who are lawmakers have “their other (state) insurance.”

Former state Rep. Chip Limehouse made a motion for White to write a letter to the two former board members giving them the option – though not requiring them – to repay the collective $8,000. The motion died for lack of a second.

“We’re talking about people, individuals, who have expertise in the field that they were in, and they’re not getting paid for that, am I right?” Leatherman said about the ex-board members. “The bank (STIB) paid $4,000 (in insurance premiums) for you – whatever that amount is. Isn’t that sort of like sitting legislators? We ain’t paid much.”

South Carolina Policy Council analysts Hannah Hill, Bryce Fiedler and Kelly Brady contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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