Premiums Send Teachers Reeling
Posted: September 11, 2013 at 3:09 a.m.
The state’s teachers are reeling from news insurance premiums in their state-provided plan will rise by up to 50 percent on Jan. 1.
Apparently, there are multiple reasons for the hike, including rising medical costs, under-utilization of the state-provided program and the experience of several catastrophic claims within the group.
Teachers and other school personnel enrolled in the Public School Health Insurance program number around 47,000. And they’re not at all happy about the coming premium increases.
For example, the family premium for one plan will jump from just more than $1,000 a month to more than $1,500 monthly, or an extra $6,000 a year. That’s a staggering hit to a family living on a teacher’s salary.
The amount of increase depends on which of the plans the teacher or school employee chooses, but the hikes are all significant.
State lawmakers heard all about it on Monday, when well more than 100 teachers and others packed a meeting room, seeking legislative help to stall the premium hikes.
The six-hour joint session of four legislative committees served to reacquaint lawmakers with problems within the system that require not only a $50 million state contribution but also funding from school districts and employee-paid premiums.
With reduced participation, however, the money from current premiums wasn’t enough. The board that governs the insurance plan had no choice but to increase revenue to the troubled program by requiring higher premiums.
The board voted for the increases in August, setting off strong reactions among teachers and prompting this month’s meeting of the Joint Education and Insurance committees of the House and Senate.
One lawmaker, state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, who chairs the Senate insurance panel, has even called for a special session of the Legislature to address the issue.
That’s not happening, at least not now. Gov. Mike Beebe said through a spokesman he will not call a special session.
The governor, who earlier agreed to move $8 million in general improvement funds to handle several catastrophic claims that hit the system, prefers to wait for next year’s fiscal session unless some consensus solution to the situation emerges.
Clearly, the teachers want a short-term solution before the Jan. 1 premiums kick in. That would require quick infusion of some one-time money, according to Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, who chairs the House Education Committee. He suggested that could happen in a special session or in the fiscal session.
The amount needed to prevent the hikes from taking place, according to state officials, is an additional $53 million.
Rapert, noting the turmoil the situation is going to cause teachers and their families, suggested the state use part of its $300 million surplus to block the increases. But he, like several others, said lawmakers must address more than the short-term fix to the system.
“This plan, if it continues as they’ve been doing, it’s in the proverbial death spiral,” said Rapert, asserting that the systemic problems that triggered this most recent dilemma must be resolved.
That’s a harder job and one on which consensus might prove elusive. Nevertheless, with 47,000 teachers and school employees pushing lawmakers to find a fix, maybe they will.
BRENDA BLAGG IS A FREELANCE COLUMNIST AND LONGTIME JOURNALIST IN NORTHWEST ARKANSAS.