PEIA Interim Director Jason Haught speaks to lawmakers last year. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Without hearing from scientists, a Senate committee advanced a bill to allow public schools teachers to discuss intelligent design, an alternative theory to evolution that is not supported by science.

But first, West Virginians who rely on health insurance from the state might soon be facing some difficult changes. 

PEIA bill would remove some spouses, likely raise premiums

Legislators are pushing forward their most comprehensive bill to address the struggling Public Employees Insurance Agency this session, moving a proposal that would change spousal benefits and likely raise premiums for many state employees to the full Senate. 

The Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to advance a new committee substitute for SB 268, which would reform PEIA and change some benefits for those enrolled in the insurance. 

Most notably, the bill would remove spouses eligible for their own insurance through their employer from coverage, unless the spouse with PEIA pays higher premiums to keep them on a plan. After a change made in a subcommittee, the only exception would be for retired employees, who will be able to keep their spouses on their coverage. 

The bill also requires that the agency return to an 80/20 split in insurance costs between employers and employees by July 1 of this year. That change will likely lead to premium increases for many employees, a shift that has been unpopular in the past, and has not occurred for nearly five years as PEIA premiums remained frozen in the wake of the 2018 teachers strike

While a number of bills addressing PEIA have been introduced this session, including a bill that passed on the first day raising the reimbursement rate PEIA pays to hospitals, in recent weeks SB 268 emerged as legislators’ main effort as they grappled with a number of complex questions about the agency and its current financial state. The bill has been amended in committee to include another measure which deals with the amount of life insurance available to retirees, and it also includes a reimbursement rate similar to the aforementioned bill dealing with hospital reimbursement. 

Legislators have argued that the bill, and the cuts to PEIA that it makes, are necessary to keep the agency afloat as it faces a looming $376 million financial shortfall by 2027. But the cuts, particularly to spousal coverage, are likely to be unpopular with the more than 200,000 state employees and teachers currently getting their insurance through PEIA. It is currently unclear if the Legislature will move to significantly increase the wages of state employees to help mitigate the increases in premiums that will likely occur under the new plan. —P.R. Lockhart

Teaching of unscientific theory advances without testimony from scientists

Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, listens to a presentation in the Senate Education Committee earlier this month. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

West Virginia teachers could soon be allowed to discuss “intelligent design” as an alternative theory when teaching evolution in the state’s public schools. 

Intelligent design is the idea that the diversity of life on earth can not be explained through Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the scientific community, and even in circles of religious scholars, it is considered a worldview, and not scientifically accurate. Proponents have tried to separate it from religious explanations of the origin of the world, but in 2005, a federal judge appointed by George W. Bush found that it was effectively “creationism relabeled,” and that its teaching in public schools violated the principle of separation of church and state.

Today, the Senate Education Committee advanced a bill that would allow teachers to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution, though it wouldn’t require teachers to discuss the subject or change existing curriculum. To inform the discussion, lawmakers heard testimony from only two people: the 15-year-old who proposed the bill to its lead sponsor, Sen. Education Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, and the ACLU’s lobbyist. Notably absent were any scientists or science teachers.

“I didn’t speak with anyone in the scientific community,” Grady said. “All [the bill] is doing is saying, ‘here’s another theory that 2.4 billion people in the world believe,’ so here’s a theory a teacher might want to present. Not saying it’s true. Not saying it’s not. Period.”

In the absence of any scientist testimony, the ACLU’s lead lobbyist, Eli Baumwell, served as a sort of surrogate. Baumwell said his testimony was informed by conversations with the National Center for Science Education, but that he himself “has no formal scientific training.”

“I tried to say that if they wanted any more in-depth scientific information, they certainly could reach out to the scientific community,” Baumwell said. “No one had any follow-up questions on that.” —Ian Karbal

Correction 2/21: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of the PEIA shortfall in 2027. It is $376 million, not $376.

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.