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Friday, August 23, 2013

Rapert, Wren want meetings on school workers' health insurance costs

Posted By on Fri, Aug 23, 2013 at 3:27 PM

click to enlarge SEN. JASON RAPERT
  • SEN. JASON RAPERT
click to enlarge REP. TOMMY WREN
  • REP. TOMMY WREN
Sen. Jason Rapert
and Rep. Tommy Wren announced today they want to do something about big health insurance rate increases facing participants in the state's plan for public school employees.

They promise special committee hearings. These won't come in time to do anything about expected big rate increases, 50 percent or more in many cases, for this school year. The increase could mean costs of an addition $500 a month for family coverage.

The state has always provided less support to teachers than to other state employees, but the teacher pool also has had greater expenses in recent years, which depleted reserves. Reserves are sufficient to offset some of the cost of insurance for other state employees.

Rapert issued a strong populist message:

“In a state where teachers are underpaid compared to other states, it’s unsustainable for them to have to absorb premium increases of up to 50 percent,” Rapert said. “It’s not right for teachers, it’s not right for support staff like cafeteria workers and maintenance personnel, and it’s not right for their families."

The news is unlikely to cost Rapert any friends among school employees heading into an election year. The solution is unlikely to be something that won't cost money even if, as Rapert says might be necessary, the system might have to be made over "from scratch." Of course, they could keep costs in check e by making state employees pay a lot more so as to reduce costs for teachers.

The full release follows:


Senator Jason Rapert of Conway and Representative Tommy Wren of Melbourne said Friday they would schedule a series of special meetings of the Senate and House Committees on Insurance and Commerce to develop a strategy for holding down the spiraling costs of teacher health insurance.

“In a state where teachers are underpaid compared to other states, it’s unsustainable for them to have to absorb premium increases of up to 50 percent,” Rapert said. “It’s not right for teachers, it’s not right for support staff like cafeteria workers and maintenance personnel, and it’s not right for their families.”

The specific dates for the meetings will be announced soon, Rapert said, adding that there is a need for urgency because many complex issues must be resolved before the 2014 legislative session.

“This problem has been getting worse for quite a few years, and now we’re at the tipping point for teachers and other school staff,” Wren said. “They’re staring at increases of $500 a month for the cost of health insurance, and they can’t wait any longer for solutions. “

Teacher health insurance premiums have been increasing steadily for the past several years, but Wednesday teachers learned that next year their health insurance rates would spike even more dramatically than usual. The State and Public School Life and Health Insurance Board approved rate increases of as much as 50 percent. For example, family coverage under the most popular plan will increase from $1,029 to $1,528 per month.

A factor in rising health insurance costs for teachers is that they pay a relatively large portion of their premiums. Some elected officials have proposed that the state fund a greater share of the health insurance costs. However, that remedy would take time. The legislature convenes in a fiscal session on February 10, 2014, and a funding increase would take effect at the beginning of the next fiscal year, on July 1, 2014. That would help teachers in the 2014-2015 school year, but not during the current school year.

“Something has to be done. It may be that we can adjust the current system, and it may be that we have to explore more drastic alternatives, such as dismantling the system now in place and completely starting from scratch,” Rapert said.

“Such drastic increases in health insurance are too much of a sacrifice for the families of school personnel,” Rapert said. “I honestly don’t know how they will be able to handle it, because these increases are devastating to a family budget.”

Rapert noted that the state Employee Benefits Division, which administers the teacher and the public employee health insurance programs, reports to the legislature’s Insurance and Commerce Committees.

“Costs for state employees have not risen at nearly the same rate as they have for teachers, in spite of the fact they are in the same plan and it’s administered by the same agency,” Rapert said. “I’m really frustrated by the inconsistencies between how teachers and state employees are treated, because if we don’t compensate them more equitably, Arkansas will begin losing our best teachers to other states,” Rapert said.

Rep. Wren added, “The time for talking is past. It’s time we did something.”

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