Benefits chief retires to work on golf game
With the exception of his double-digit golf handicap, Woody Thorne says he’s done dealing with crises.
For the past 16 years, he’s pretty much moved from one problem area to another. He was hired to straighten out problems in for risk management, the state’s self-insurance program. He moved to deputy budget director, presenting Gov. Bob Miller’s reorganization of state government to the Legislature in 1993. Thorne joined the Department of Taxation in time for the less than smooth development of the ACES computer system.
He left Taxation just over five years ago to become head of the state’s trouble-plagued Public Employee Benefits Program.
“I go from frying pan to fire and every time we put out the fire, I jumped into another frying pan.”
The final straw was when his wife retired in July.
“She was having too much fun rubbing it in when I went to work every morning,” he said.
And he admits not liking it very much when she beats him on the golf course.
Thorne, 59, said he believes he is leaving the benefits program in much better condition than when he took over in 2001.
“The first year I came in, there had been a glossing over of where it was at and a combination of things hit the following year: decreasing rates and subsidies, increased utilization and a slew of large claims.”
The result was a huge deficit which forced the governor and Legislature to pump more than $25 million into the program.
But by 2004, he said changes in the program had dramatically reduced utilization and there were far fewer major claims – transplants and other medical cases costing hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.
Now, he says, the benefits program has rebuilt its reserves to handle problems like that, stabilized the benefits it offers, refined and updated its procedures and policies to prevent future financial problems. The program, with an overall budget of some $300 million, now has operating reserves of more than $21 million, catastrophic reserves of $23 million and “we actually have a surplus over and above that.
“We’ve gone from very shaky financially to very solid,” he said. “We turned the corner and we’re now fully solvent. Now it’s time to work on my golf game.”
Thorne said he leaves the benefits program with a solid, competent staff.
But Thorne says he has no illusions that the controversies plaguing the benefits program are over.
“With the diverse group of people we have to satisfy, there’s always going to be some issue with some group,” he said.
The big issues he sees are the impending retirement of the baby boomers who make up a disproportionate share of the state workforce – including himself – and new federal rules directing states to deal with the benefits liability they owe those workers.
“I’m on the leading edge of that baby-boomer juggernaut,” he said.
The federal rules will soon require the state calculate and account for the amount it will have to spend for retiree benefits in the future. The problem for states is, reporting that liability on its books could have a negative impact on the state bond rating. And that could cost millions in added interest payments on bond issues needed to build everything from roads to university buildings.
In Nevada’s case, he said that liability is anywhere from $1 billion if the Legislature starts putting money into an account to cover the tab to $4 billion if they continue the current pay-as-you-go practice of budgeting for just current costs every two years.
“That’s their decision to make,” he said. “I won’t be there and if I show up at any benefits meetings, just shoot me.”
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.