Thursday, September 26, 2013

No solution in sight for teachers insurance sticker shock; UPDATE, or is there?

Posted By on Thu, Sep 26, 2013 at 7:28 AM

click to enlarge DAVY CARTER: Quick insurance fix a 'whole other animal.'
  • DAVY CARTER: Quick insurance fix a 'whole other animal.'
Roby Brock at Talk Business has rounded up some of the ideas being floated in private meetings with the governor, legislators and school people on finding a solution for big health insurance premium increases set to batter Arkansas public school teachers Jan. 1.

Having read his article, I despair of a solution. Because nobody seems to be talking seriously about what has to be a key part of any lasting solution:

A higher state contribution to public school employee insurance.

The state pays about double the subsidy for other state employees compared with what it provides for teachers. The smaller subsidy leads to smaller participation. Smaller participation leads to use of insurance by a disproportionate number with greater needs. Greater needs lead to higher rates.

The talk of taking the money from other categorical school programs — lunch money, for example (actually, this is a misnomer, this is money paid to districts based on the number receiving subsidized lunches, a sign of poverty) — won't be well-received by local school districts. Nor should it be. That sort of stuff just rolls downhill into starving everything else in a school district. In talking to Republican leaders Johnny Key and Michael Lamoureux, Brock comments:

Both men suggested that public schools may simply be asked to meet a yet-to-be-determined dollar figure through belt-tightening or repurposed existing funding.

Well, sure they will be asked to do that. And you can imagine how well that will go down.

There's talk, too, of making employees pay more to cover family members. How that ameliorates sticker shock is beyond me. There's good ol' Republican Key, too, with the tired health savings account panacea. This is the idea that workers will put money they don't have into a health savings account in return for some tax benefits. It's already proved a failure in any number of test runs. I think House Speaker Davy Carter shares my pessimism about a quick solution.

"To build a consensus on this type of issue on this type of timeframe is a whole other animal,” said Carter of the daunting task. “I don’t know what the best process is, but I can’t think of anything better than what we’re doing. Let’s start out with something and try to build on it."

This much is clear. The system of insuring public employees isn't equitable. Consider that Pulaski County government pays ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of an employee's health insurance premium. State employees, in the moderate plans, pay very modest prices. Teachers, because of puny subsidies from the state and school districts, get hammered.

There's an answer, of course: Single payer health insurance for all. Some day, not in my lifetime, it will happen. Or revolution.

I don't think I exaggerate. Something is wrong in the U.S.A. We live in a country that Republicans keep saying is exceptional — better than any other — and the defining political battle of the day is their pitched battle to prevent a shared commitment to universal access to adequate health care for all.  Most of these same exceptionalists also claim higher spiritual and family values than those of us who support universal health care. Which Bible are they reading?

UPDATE: More from people following the debate closely.

* BEEBE FACTOR: He is pressing legislators hard for two things that could free $15 million dollars. Beebe has always believed the additional poverty aid based on lunch numbers shouldn't have been a permanent payout. He wants that $7 million switched to teacher insurance. Beebe is pushing hard for a law change to recapture the $8 million windfall eight small school districts get from a quirk they exploited in the law on the minimum millage charge each district is supposed to pay for foundation school aid. Beebe wrote the original law. He knows it wasn't meant to let tiny school districts that happen to have, say, a huge power plant in its boundaries, keep all their local property tax when it exceeded state foundation aid at the minimum level. Districts are supposed to turn over their full 25 mills and be rewarded only for extra effort. That would produce another $8 million.

* THE BENEFITS OF OBAMACARE: Yes, benefits. This is an ace in the hole for Beebe that has received little attention. There are thousands of school district classified workers — bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, secretaries — who could qualify for the federally subsidized health exchanges under Obamacare. What we've called a teacher insurance crisis is actually a public school employee insurance crisis. The lower-paid employees could get better coverage at far less cost from the health exchanges than under the school employees' plan. Nobody has a figure on how much the state and school districts could save — and thus move to remaining employees — but it should be a considerable amount. There might even be  poorly paid teachers who are sole supporters of a family who might find an exchange a better deal than the state plan.

So maybe there is a way out. Beebe's skill and clout with a Republican-majority legislature and Obamacare could be the key elements.

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