Monthly Archives: September 2014

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thT71ZJLIYDrilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region led to a rapid increase in both the number of hotels and hotel industry jobs, but Penn State researchers report that the faltering occupancy rate may signal that there are now too many hotel rooms.

“Demand is still high in many of the counties in the Marcellus Shale region, but the occupancy rate is starting to come down,” said Daniel Mount, an associate professor in hospitality management. “The case could be made that this is a sign that hotels were overbuilt.”

Marcellus drilling operations generated approximately $685 million in hotel revenues and added an extra 1,600 new hotel jobs since 2006, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education Penn State Research Reports.

However, the latest figures show that demand for rooms may be decreasing. For example, in 2012, demand was flat and occupancy was down 4.1 percent.

If demand continues to decrease, the older, non-franchised hotels may be the most vulnerable to bankruptcy and closure, according to Mount. Of the 14 hotels that closed between 2006 and 2012, nine did not have a national franchise. The average age of the 14 closed hotels was more than 38 years old.

“The overall economic benefit of the drilling boom is still good for hoteliers, but it’s just not the bonanza that it used to be,” said Mount. “It may be that the newer hotels and the hotel chains are in a better position to withstand the lower demand, in which case, it will be the older, independent hotels that go out of business.”

The flat rate contrasts with the explosive growth of hotel construction during the early stages of the drilling boom. Hotel developers built 65 hotels in the drilling region, which is a far greater number than national trends would suggest for hotel development, said Mount, who worked with Timothy Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics and co-director of the Center for Economic and Community Development and Kathryn Brasier, associate professor of rural sociology.

Alternative housing may explain some of the lower demand, as well, said Mount. Some companies that originally assigned workers to hotel rooms may now be housing them at alternative sites, such as apartment complexes or mobile homes, further reducing demand for hotel space.

Other workforce patterns, such as hiring more local workers and gains in workforce efficiencies, may also be contributing factors to the decreased demand in hotel rooms, said Brasier.

A drop in the price of natural gas and decrease in future drilling may also affect demand for rooms, the researchers suggest. Recently, as natural gas prices fell, the total number of wells drilled decreased from 1,968 in 2011 to 1,362 in 2012.

The researchers used the most recent data available from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on hotel development and drilling activity in the five major drilling regions — northeast, north central, central, west central and southwest — of Pennsylvania. They then compared data on hotel performance — total demand, average daily rate and total rooms revenue — with national figures.

 

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Although one Senate Republican says the decision to arm school teachers likely won’t be made until the next session, the Senate Education Committee moved forward with a hearing on a bill that would make the “controversial” measure an option for districts statewide.

“I don’t see anything happening with this in lame duck,” Majority Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, told reporters Tuesday. “So if it doesn’t happen by the end of October, it will have to be reintroduced.”
Folmer calls the legislation — Senate Bill 1193 — a “may” bill, meaning school districts can choose whether to implement it, thereby allowing teachers to carry firearms into the classroom with the goal of protecting students from armed intruders.

Sen. Don White, R-Armstrong, sponsored the bill last spring in the wake of a mass stabbing in his district at Franklin Regional High School that injured 21 students and a security guard.
“I was there with Governor Corbett on the day of the incident last spring,” he said “The devastation I saw…it was hard to witness.”

Mark Zilinskas, an Indiana County high school math teacher, echoed White’s sentiment, telling lawmakers that the threat of a violent intruder breaking into his school keeps him awake at night.

“Our current laws, policies and plans are not good enough,” he wrote in his testimony. “In fact they are dangerous. They encourage killers to come to our schools because they know we cannot stop them. We have to wait until the police get there which is always going to be too late.”

Zilinskas insisted that teachers — not police — are the true first responders in any active shooter incident and could benefit from proper firearms training, such as the programs already offered in nearby states with a similar law already on the books.

Zilinskas even attended a three-day course at the Tactical Defense Institute in West Union, Ohio, to prepare for the armed intruder scenario.

“I believe there are over 30 districts in the state of Ohio who have teachers and administrators who have went through this training and who are now carrying the equipment (a firearm) necessary to stop a murderer from killing their students,” he said. “Time is our enemy. We must prepare, we must train, we must make sure that the true first responders — those who are there — are able to stop a madman before it becomes a slaughter.”

Dr. Robert L. Urzillo, superintendent for Blue Mountain School District in Schuylkill County, said the shortage of local police coverage — just one full time officer for the entire 126 square mile district — compounded by the Sandy Hook massacre, pushed the school board to train and arm two staff members to serve as security personnel.

“There were two guiding precepts that served as the foundation for this decision. First, we hoped, and continue to hope, that this will serve as a deterrent,” Urzillo wrote in his testimony. “Second, if an armed intruder enters a building or our grounds, armed personnel may be able to eliminate a threat or reduce the extent of harm. With a district our size … we know that the two security people (who also hold other duties) could not be everywhere, but the fact that a potential intruder does not know where they may be could deter a potential shooter. Therefore, we went forward with the training.”
Critics of the legislation argue that adding firearms into schools would only increase the chance of injury, or even death, with Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, citing the number of trained police officers who shoot innocent bystanders through imperfect aim or mistaken identity every year.

Williams also questioned Zilinskas about whether the teacher who fired the errant shot should accept liability for the mistake. Zilinskas said he didn’t “have an answer for that.”

“I was an educator and school administrator in Pennsylvania for 31 years and I can tell you arming teachers is not the answer, especially when trained, professional school police officers are already authorized to carry guns and protect children in Pennsylvania,” said Deb Marteslo, a former Pennsylvania teacher and assistant principal, and current volunteer with Moms Demand Action’s Pennsylvania Chapter, in a press release Tuesday. “Instead of working to prevent gun violence before a shooter is inside our schools’ doors by strengthening background checks in our state, our legislators want to turn teachers into armed security guards.”

“There is no evidence that arming school personnel increases school safety and there are many reasons to believe that such an option will put more of the school population – students, teachers, and other school personnel – at risk,” wrote Deborah Gordon Klehr, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center, in testimony submitted to the committee Tuesday. “Nationally, arming school personnel is not a recommended practice.”

“The answer to keeping schools safe is fewer guns, not more,” said Wythe Keever, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. “Properly trained law enforcement and school resource officers should be the only individuals permitted to carry firearms on school property. Recent incidents in Utah and Idaho, in which teachers carrying firearms in schools wounded themselves when their weapons accidentally discharged, are examples of the unintended consequences of this type of legislation. Recent announcements by major school liability insurance carriers that they will no longer insure schools which allow teachers to carry firearms, should dissuade serious consideration of this measure.”

teachers and gunsIn a December report released by the Joint State Government Commission, an Advisory Committee on Violence Prevention recommended against arming trained school personnel, writing “concerns have been expressed about the safety of a teacher in a classroom wearing a handgun on his hip, ranging from the possibility of the teacher being disarmed by disruptive students to creating an environment of fear that is not conducive to learning. Questions also arise as to when the school employee should use his weapon. Police officers undergo extensive training in the use of their weapons and teachers do not. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect a teacher to have the same firearms competency as a law enforcement officer, and not sound policy to assign such responsibility to a teacher.”
–Christen Smith, Capitolwire

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forced duesShouldn’t Pennsylvania’s public schoolteachers have the right to choose what charities they financially support? Officials from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), have answered an emphatic “no”—and, in doing so, have exceeded their authority.

That’s the crux of a lawsuit announced at a press conference in Harrisburg and filed in Lancaster County court Sept. 18 by the Fairness Center on behalf of two Pennsylvania teachers seeking to regain their rights and freedoms.

“I want freedom of choice—to be able to donate to the charity I choose,” commented Lancaster County teacher Chris Meier, one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Both Meier and Jane Ladley, a retired teacher from Chester County, are religious objectors to the teachers’ union. In lieu of paying dues, the law allows for religious objectors to contribute to an IRS-approved charity of their choice. But their money is being held in escrow by the PSEA, rather than being forwarded to the charities Meier and Ladley have chosen as state law permits.

The only restriction the law specifies is that it must be a “nonreligious charity.” Both Meier and Ladley have selected nonreligious charities to receive their money, but officials from the PSEA have refused to release their funds and have suggested their own charities.

Meier and Ladley’s request is simple: They should be free to choose the charity they support. It is their money, it is their choice, and the law is on their side.

“They are telling me which groups I have to choose,” Ladley remarked. “It’s a wrong that needs to be righted. I’m doing this on principle and for the other teachers coming up through the ranks, so that they have these options

The Plaintiffs
Jane Ladley is a 25-year veteran of the Pennsylvania public school system. She recently retired from Avon Grove School District in Chester County, not long after the district went “agency shop,” requiring all teachers to either join the teachers unions or pay a lesser “fair share fee.”

Ladley’s status as a religious objector to the union was accepted by the PSEA in 2013 and her money, rather than funding her chosen charity, has been held in escrow since then.
Chris Meier, a father of three, currently teaches history and economics at Penn Manor High School in Lancaster County, where he has been employed for the last ten years. He is also a “bona fide religious objector” whose charity of choice has been arbitrarily rejected by the PSEA.

The Fairness Center
The Fairness Center is a nonprofit, public interest law firm offering free legal services to those facing unjust treatment from public employee union leaders. For more information visit www.FairnessCenter.org.

 

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house and senateBoth the Senate and House returned to work Sept. 15 with legislation authorizing Philadelphia to enact a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to help fund the Phlly School District’s budget. When the Legislature recessed in July the issue was left unresolved.

While the legislature’s agenda is packed with bills including public employee pensions to public records any aren’t approved this fall effectively die and have to be reintroduced come January, when a new two-year session begins.

For the Philadelphia School District, the cigarette tax is critical. And time is of the essence.

The system faces an $81 million deficit, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said if the tax does not pass by early October, he will be forced to lay off more than 1,000 employees, including teachers, and swell some class sizes to 40.”

There is no Plan B,” Hite said last week. “We’re not going to put children in those types of environment.”

Steve Miskin, spokesman for Republican leaders in the House, said he expects the chamber to vote on the cigarette tax by Sept. 17. It will then go to the Senate, where officials say it ranks high on the list of priorities.

“Both chambers are interested in finishing it as soon as possible. Nobody wants that bill to linger,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).
Gov. Corbett has said he will sign the cigarette tax bill if it reaches his desk.

Another issue which proponents hope will find legislature approval privatization the sale of wine and liquor. Also Gov. Corbett’s wish list is pension legislation.

All 203 members of the House and half of the 50 senators are up for reelection. There is little confidence that such hotly debated bills will even be taken up, let alone make it to Corbett’s desk, particularly given the abbreviated legislative schedule. The House is set to meet for 11 days before members break in late October for the election, and the Senate for 10 days.

Legislative sources say there is only the slimmest chance of resolutions on liquor or pensions bills – though House Republicans are determined to jump-start debate on both issues.

Gov. Corbett announced last week that he would call a special session pension reform if he is reelected, an announcement that pundits say show he is conceding o the issue

“The governor still believes pension reform remains one of the major issues he and the legislature must deal with, and is hopeful that progress can be made,” Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Inquirer believes the prospects appear better for debate on a medical marijuana bill – at least in the Senate , stating, “although Corbett has remained steadfast in his opposition to blanket legalization of marijuana for medicinal uses. He did say last spring that he would support a pilot study among child epilepsy patients seeking relief from seizures.”

The paper has reported that with two-thirds of the Senate supporting it, both Republican leaders and Democrats in that chamber say they are confident that a bill legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes under a doctor’s supervision will be approved by the upper chamber.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said he believes that the House too has the votes to pass the bill – and that there is urgency to getting the bill done quickly.

“Every day we don’t have access to medicine for people who desperately need it is a bad day,” said Leach, who said he hopes the issue makes it to Corbett’s desk in the next few weeks.
Not so fast, countered Miskin, noting that the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana for medical use.

“The majority of our members believe the FDA has the resources to determine what is and what isn’t medicine,” said Miskin.

 

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lobbyistThe Department of State is proposing a smaller increase to the biennial lobbying registration fee, backing off of the higher $700 fee proposed last summer after non-profits, advocacy groups and small businesses had concerns about the increase.

The department wants to increase its once per legislative session registration fee to $400 per individual lobbyist and principal to, as the Corbett administration has said, end the “taxpayer subsidy” of maintaining the state’s Lobbyist Disclosure Database.

An analysis of the final rule making says the department determined a $400 fee, or 100-percent increase, would be “more manageable for small businesses” than the $700 fee.

“Further, an increase to $400 accomplishes the department’s goal of the regulated community contributing more equally towards the costs associated with their regulation,” the analysis states.
The department estimates there will be about 1,796 principals, 143 lobbying firms and 1,482 lobbyists that will be impacted by the increased fee. To meet registration requirements, lobbyists must spend at least $2,500 in any quarter of a registration period.

The increase, if approved and applied to the 2015-16 registration period, would cover 72 percent of the department’s administrative expenses, with the remaining 28 percent supplemented by General Fund resources, according to the regulatory analysis.

For the 2013-14 registration period, the department is projected to spend approximately $1.7 million to administer the Lobbying Disclosure Act, while generating about $684,400 in revenue from the registration fees. The department is authorized to spend $800,000 from the Restricted Lobbying Disclosure Account, which will cover about 49 percent of the total costs of administration. The remaining 51 percent of the disclosure expenses will be funded by the General Fund, according to the analysis.

“While the costs of administering the act continue to increase, General Fund support remains flat, therefore, it is necessary to increase the registration fee. The increased biennial registration fee will allow the Department’s Lobbying Disclosure Division to maintain the same level of customer service and transparency currently offered by the Department,” the analysis says.

The increase shouldn’t pose much of a hardship to the corporate lobbyists working the state Capitol’s halls.

Twenty nine of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies, including Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Apple and General Electric, as well as 13 of the 20 Commonwealth-based companies on the Fortune 500 list like Comcast, Rite Aid and PPG Industries, are currently registered principals.

“The proposed fee increase is unlikely to adversely impact the many large corporate principals or the lobbyists and/or lobbying firms whom they employ to the extent that the company pays the individuals’ registration fee,” the analysis says.

Barry Kauffman, a lobbyist and director of watchdog group Common Cause PA, which pushed for the Lobbyist Disclosure Act in 2006, says small firms will still feel the sting. He filed a letter with IRRC opposing the new increase last year, and again opposed the $400 per lobbyist and principal fee increase, calling it “excessive.”

“In reality that means a small organization still must raise at least $800 just to cover its lobby registration fees ($400 to register the organization, and $400 to register each lobbyist). For organizations with total annual budgets in the range of $100,000 per year, or less, $800 remains an extreme price for registering to lobby,” Kauffman wrote in a letter to IRRC last week.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act set the fee at $100. The fee was increased to $200 at the start of the 2011-12 registration period, and the state saw an increase in the number of total registrations. Specifically, the number of lobbying firms increased by 17, lobbyist registrations increased by 114, and principal registrations increased by 78, for a total increase of 209 registrations from the 2009-10 biennial period, according to the analysis.

The department says a decrease in the registration of lobbyists may occur when the fee increase becomes effective, but any decrease is anticipated to be negligible.

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission is scheduled to vote on the final rule making at its Sept. 18 meeting.

–Kevin Zwick, Capitolwire

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Sept 2014 gender gapWomen’s rights in the United States have made leaps and bounds since the passage of the 19th Amendment. Yet many women today still struggle to crack the proverbial glass ceiling. And it doesn’t take a feminist to convince anyone that the gender gap in 21st-century America remains disgracefully wide. In 2013, the U.S. failed to make the top 10 — or even the top 20 — of the World Economic Forum’s list of the most gender-equal countries. In fact, the U.S. had fallen one spot to No. 23 since 2012 and six spots since 2011 on the WEC’s annual Global Gender Gap Index. Worse, it lagged behind developing nations — including Burundi, Lesotho, Nicaragua and the Philippines — with primary areas of weakness in economic participation and political empowerment.

Pennsylvania ranked 23rd.

Perhaps most apparent about the issue is how far gender inequality stretches in the American workplace environment. Even with all their advances toward social equality thus far, women continue to be disproportionately under-represented in leadership positions. This past March, the Center for American Progress reported that women “are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.” And though they comprise the majority of the labor force in the financial services and health care industries, none are head honchos of their companies.
Apart from unequal representation in executive leadership, salary inequity also has been central to the gender gap debate. Few experts dispute the existence of an earnings gap between women and men, but defining the issue in simple terms remains a challenge. Although the U.S. has completely closed its gender education gap, about two-thirds of minimum-wage workers across the country are female, according to the National Women’s Law Center. At a federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the NWLC points out, a full-time worker would earn only $14,500 a year, placing a three-person family “thousands of dollars below the federal poverty line.” Unfortunately, women still have too few voices in government to help them achieve full social and economic equality in the near future.

In observance of Women’s Equality Day on Aug. 26, WalletHub crunched the numbers to gauge the scope of gender-based disparities in each of the 50 U.S. states. We did so by examining 10 key metrics, ranging from the gap in the number of female and male executives to the disparity between women’s and men’s life expectancy to the imbalance of their political representation. By highlighting the most and least gender-egalitarian states, we hope to accomplish three goals: help women find the best career opportunities, empower them to keep fighting for their rights and encourage states to learn from one another.

Women’s Equality in Pennsylvania (1=best)
• 18th – Earnings Gap
• 31st – Executive Positions Gap
• 38th – Workday Hours Gap
• 32nd – Educational Attainment Gap
• 32nd – Minimum-Wage Workers Gap
• 32nd – Unemployment Rate Gap
• 42nd – Political Representation Gap

For the full report, go to:
http://wallethub.com/edu/best-and-worst-states-for-women-equality/5835/

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gov. corbett and healthy planGov. Tom Corbett has made an historic announcement that the state has secured agreement with the federal government to implement the portion of his Healthy Pennsylvania plan that will improve and bring financial stability to the state’s Medicaid program so that the state can increase access to quality, affordable health care through the private insurance market.

“From the beginning, I said we needed a plan that was created in Pennsylvania for Pennsylvania − a plan that would allow us to reform a financially unsustainable Medicaid program and increase access to health care for eligible individuals through the private market,” Corbett said Aug. 28.

There are believed to be approximately 600,000 individuals who will be newly eligible for the private option plan, 65 percent of which, said state officials, are the “working poor” – people with employment but no health insurance.

In order to make the necessary changes to the state’s health care system, the Corbett Administration requested over the past year a waiver and associated state plan amendments from the federal government, which were then modified based on a comprehensive public comment process across the state. Public input included seven public hearings and two webinars statewide with more than 1,000 attendees and 170 live testimonies. The waiver was officially submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Feb. 19.

“Health care is not a one-size-fits-all issue; the governor’s Healthy Pennsylvania plan meets the needs of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) Secretary Beverly Mackereth said.

“Governor Corbett is the first governor to tackle much-needed Medicaid reforms since the program’s creation, with the goal of protecting Pennsylvania taxpayers and looking ahead to maintain a safety net for those who most need public assistance.”

The Healthy Pennsylvania agreement includes two parts: reforming the current Medicaid program and offering the Healthy PA Private Coverage Option (PCO) for eligible Pennsylvanians.

The Healthy Pennsylvania plan focuses on personal responsibility and healthy behaviors; aligning benefits to match health care needs; promoting financial independence through access to job training and employment resources; and increasing access to private, commercial coverage for eligible Pennsylvanians.

Medicaid costs account for 29 percent of the state’s general fund budget and have been growing at an average rate of 3 percent – more than $400 million – each year. Governor Corbett has been clear that he would not expand Medicaid because it is an unsustainable entitlement program. Instead, the Corbett Administration sought common-sense reforms to the Medicaid program.

As part of the approved waiver, the Healthy Pennsylvania PCO will be created to increase access to health care through the private, commercial market for those eligible. This will help to reduce bureaucracy by relying on commercial insurance carriers and offer more provider options to recipients.

Currently, nine insurers have applied as providers of the Healthy Pennsylvania PCO, offering a minimum of two insurer options in each region of the state. Enrollment is expected to begin Dec. 1.
The health care provider community welcomed the agreement.

“Since the very first mention of health care reform, the Pennsylvania Medical Society has supported efforts to expand access to affordable, quality health insurance,” said Bruce A. MacLeod, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, in a statement. “While many have debated the method to expand healthcare at both the federal and state levels, the Pennsylvania Medical Society has focused on the end-result – getting more Pennsylvanians access to health insurance.

“Having health insurance is one thing. Accessing health care is another,” said MacLeod.

“The Pennsylvania Medical Society looks forward to working with Governor Corbett and his administration on the implementation of the Healthy PA waiver and other efforts to expand access to affordable, quality health care across the state,” MacLeod said.

The reaction by those who have advocated the state simply expand its current Medicaid program, without any of the changes sought by the Corbett administration.

Acknowledging the agreement will begin to address some of the uninsured population in Pennsylvania, Antoinette Kraus, director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network said in a statement: “While we applaud CMS for removing the most harmful aspects of Healthy PA, we still believe Medicaid Expansion would have been the best choice for Pennsylvania.

“… serious concerns remain about the affordability of premiums and new bureaucratic hurdles under Healthy PA, and the drastic cuts Pennsylvania is seeking to make in our existing Medicaid program. If approved, these cuts will jeopardize the health of people with disabilities, pregnant women and seniors.

“Unlike all of our neighboring states, which used new funding in the Affordable Care Act to cover low-income individuals and families right away, Pennsylvania took a detour to pursue the complex and controversial Healthy PA waiver.”

Healthy PA PCO and Medicaid Reform Innovations

Both components of the plan include these four innovations:
• Alignment with Private, Commercial Health Care Benefits
The current Medicaid program will change from 14 benefit plans into “low risk” and “high risk” benefit packages that include essential health benefits and meet standards for mental health and drug and alcohol coverage uniformity. This change will better tailor health care benefits to the needs of the different populations served in the program.
• Encouraging Employment
The Encouraging Employment program will assist low-income, able bodied Pennsylvanians to improve overall health and well-being and move out of poverty. Pennsylvania is the first state to advance an incentivized employment program to reduce health care cost sharing.
• Cost Sharing

To encourage personal responsibility, individuals enrolled in the Healthy PA PCO and Medicaid program will participate in cost sharing:

o Year One: Eligible individuals will pay the same Medicaid copayments that exist today.
o Year Two: Eligible individuals with incomes greater than 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), unless otherwise exempt, will be required to pay 2 percent of their income toward a monthly premium. Current copayments will be eliminated. An $8 copayment for non-emergency use of the emergency room will be introduced. Individuals who do not pay premiums for more than 90 days will be disenrolled, with limited exemptions from premiums for individuals meeting certain criteria.
• Cost-Sharing Reductions
Individuals in the Healthy PA PCO and Medicaid program will have the opportunity to reduce their cost-sharing obligations by engaging in certain healthy behaviors.
Medicaid participants and Healthy PA PCO enrollees will be able to reduce their health care cost-sharing obligations through job training and work-related activities, with each participant receiving assistance to do so from a Healthy PA Career Coach.

Paying cost-sharing amounts in a timely fashion and having an annual wellness visit in the first year of the program will allow for cost-sharing reductions in the second year. In future years, completion of approved healthy behaviors will continue the cost-sharing reduction and will be reassessed every 6 months.

“The Healthy Pennsylvania plan supports independence for all Pennsylvanians, utilizes the private health care market, and increases health care choices for consumers – all without expanding an entitlement program,” Corbett said. “This is truly a Pennsylvania solution.”

The Healthy Pennsylvania Private Coverage Option is contingent upon continued funding from the federal government.

Gov. Tom Corbett announces Healthy Pennsylvania Program