In January, the cost for Scott Wahlquist to insure his three children and wife will rise to nearly 40 percent of the gross income he makes teaching in Conway.
Wahlquist and his family moved to Arkansas 13 years ago to help his aging father-in-law run the family poultry farm in Drasco, a small community in Cleburne County. Since 2006, he's taught German at Conway High School and a Conway middle school while tending to the chickens in the evenings and on the weekends. Each of the Wahlquists' three boys has suffered a different major medical condition since childhood. The oldest son, who is now a student at Arkansas Tech, must take regular insulin injections and other medication to cope with Type 1 diabetes. The middle son has Asperger's. The youngest, 16, suffers from ulcerative colitis, a painful and sometimes devastating auto-immune disorder of the bowels. Similar to Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis can require extended hospital stays, a lifetime regimen of medication, and eventual surgical removal of the colon, which the family finally was forced to resort to after years of struggle.
"It's fortunate the hospital stays have been spread out over so many years," Wahlquist said of his youngest son, "but we counted it up and if you stacked them on top of each other day by day, he spent eight months of his life in the hospital before he turned 9 years old."
All three of the boys are now managing their conditions reasonably well, but at a sizeable cost. Prescriptions alone would run over a thousand dollars each month if the family had no insurance. "We're all relatively healthy within our own little chronic illness realms," Wahlquist said with a slight smile. However, one member of Wahlquist's family is not insured: his wife, Michelle.
Last year, the public school employees' plan that covers Wahlquist and his sons raised its rates by about 20 percent. Wahlquist said the cost to cover both his wife and his children just didn't work with their household budget. "It was either pay for insurance for Michelle or put food on the table." They now pay for Michelle's basic care and prescription drugs out of pocket and hope for the best. Wahlquist's current premium for himself and his children is about $580 per month. If his wife were included as well, the monthly premium would be $1,030.
But that's a bargain compared to what's scheduled to happen in three months.
In August, the Employee Benefits Division (EBD), the arm of the state revenue department that manages both the teacher insurance pool and a similar plan for state workers, announced a massive increase in premiums for public school employees. As of Jan. 1, Scott Wahlquist will begin paying $870 per month in premiums to insure himself and his children. If Michelle were to rejoin her husband's plan — and soon she must buy insurance of some kind somewhere or pay a penalty, as required of all citizens by the Affordable Care Act — the total premium would rise to an incredible $1,540 every month. Wahlquist earns about $4,100 per month as a veteran teacher in the Conway Public School district, pre-tax; this means that to insure his wife and kids in 2014 on his current plan he will have to contribute 37 percent of his gross income for the cost of premiums alone.
Wahlquist has plenty of company. Out of the nearly 70,000 public school employees in Arkansas, about 48,000 are insured by their employer and will face insurance hikes of up to 50 percent as of Jan. 1. Most of the rest get cheaper insurance elsewhere, such as through a spouse — a fact that is of crucial importance in understanding the crisis. Since the beginning of the summer, teacher insurance actuaries have been warning that insufficient funding in the school employees' plan, combined with an unusually high claims year in 2012, threatened the system with insolvency. More money is required either from public coffers or teachers' pockets. Because the Employee Benefits Division has no power to appropriate more funding — that is the job of the legislature — school employees are the ones who will have to pay more. If the numbers above sound daunting on an Arkansas teacher's salary, bear in mind they also apply to non-teaching staff as well: cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers and the other "classified" support staff who toil for low hourly wages to keep school facilities functional.
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