Faces: Woody Thorne likes a challenge

Woody Thorne has a history of taking on jobs most people would flee from.

His latest challenge is possibly the biggest he's had since arriving in Nevada 11 years ago: the debt and controversy plagued Public Employee Benefits Program.

The program Thorne took over June 18 almost went bankrupt two years ago, forcing the governor and Legislature to bail it out with $26 million in cash. And since then, it has been at the center of a storm of protest by different groups of members complaining about rising costs and decreasing benefits.

But Thorne said Friday he's confident he can turn that around.

"Is it fixable? Yah, I think it is," he said.

Employees and retirees got a little bit of encouragement at the Benefits Committee's most recent meeting a month ago. Several hundred turned out in Reno and Las Vegas as well as Carson City prepared to protest an expected 22 percent increase in premium costs.

But Thorne told the board and the audience they had reworked the program and the increase would only be 7 1/4 percent.

"We're getting it back on a sound financial basis and trying to get things running the way they should," he said.

Thorne said a major problem for the benefits program is the dramatically different needs of different members. He said young, single employees don't need or want the same coverage as those with a spouse and children while retirees have different needs and problems than either of those two groups.

"That's the challenge, trying to find the balance between those," he said.

He added that things get even more complicated when the differences between services available in Las Vegas, Reno and rural areas are factored in.

Gov. Kenny Guinn has vowed to fix the program saying not only 16,000 state workers but thousands of local workers and retirees rely on it for health care benefits.

But Thorne conceded that it's unlikely everybody will be happy with whatever he and the committee wind up doing.

"Health care is expensive and it's going to continue to be expensive," he said. "Once we get the mechanics and organization running smoothly, we'll have a better understanding of what elements of the plan are costing what. Then we'll be able to tell the participants and the board what the situation is.

Asked why he took the job, he said, "I like to fix things I guess."

He came to Nevada, hired as Risk Manager in 1990, to fix things.

"In the first 30 days I was here, we had the earthquake," he said.

Because of quake damage, Thorne had to tell the state to shut down the old museum on Carson Street.

"That made me real popular," he said.

He moved to the Budget Office two years later as deputy director - just in time for the budget cuts forced by the economic slump of 1991-92.

He moved to Taxation in 1994 and, within a year, was trying to help fix that department's ACES computer system - which was as controversial then as the NOMADS welfare computer system.

"That was fun," he said.

Thorne says he believes the benefits system will come around. But he said the state, lawmakers and the participants will have to make some choices along the way.

"We need to do a lot better job communicating," he said. "Education for the participants, and the provider, the physician, is going to make a big difference."

He said plans such as Nevada's have not done well in educating the doctors who provide treatment.

"They hear from the drug companies. They're bombarded by them. But they don't hear much from the payer-community," he said.

"We need to involve all the different groups and make sure they have an understanding of what the options are," he said. "We may end up where none of us is particularly liking where we are but at least we'll understand how we got there."


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