Reform health insurance for school employees

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Washington state’s health insurance system has abandoned many of our public schools’ most dedicated, yet lowest-wage-earning employees, including secretaries, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Like many working families, our cost of health insurance has grown so expensive that most of the money we earn goes to pay for insurance premiums and never ends up in take-home pay. I know of some workers who have no paycheck to cash after benefits are deducted from their monthly wages and a few who actually write their employers a check every month to pay for their insurance. Many others who qualify for benefits are the working poor who can’t afford health insurance for themselves or their families. They go without, or look to a government-subsidized program for help.

We’re not talking about over-utilization as a reason for high costs, either. In a recent survey, about half of all school workers in Southwest Washington covered only themselves on their insurance plan. Many cannot afford to cover a spouse or dependent child based on what they earn.

Not only is this system unfair to school employees, it’s also unnecessarily costly to taxpayers. Currently, each of Washington’s 295 local school districts is responsible for designing its own benefit plans for teachers and school workers. The result is a crazy patchwork of 1,000 employee insurance pools and 200 medical plans offered by 10 different insurance companies. Ironically, the majority of all school employees receive coverage through a private insurance monopoly that eliminates regular market forces that can often help keep rates more stable and affordable.

In contrast, most state government employees benefit from a large statewide health insurance pool, which drives down the administrative cost because of the large number of members. Virtually all K-12 education employees are left out of this system.

Further, school workers like me are not treated the same as teachers or other public employees when it comes to health insurance due to our hourly, part-time status. For instance, higher-paid state agency employees who work half-time qualify for full benefits. Without that full-time status, many school workers are responsible for covering 100 percent of their health insurance costs. The system is broken and needs to be reformed now.

Costs likely to rise

In a recent report, Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag estimated the state could save $90 million by consolidating and streamlining the insurance system for 100,000 public school employees. For a state facing ongoing billion-dollar budget deficits, this would be a considerable savings. Lawmakers in Olympia are starting to take notice. In response to the auditor’s report, the Legislature directed the state Health Care Authority to determine the costs and benefits of creating a unified health insurance system for education staff similar to other public workers. A final report will be presented to lawmakers in December for action in the 2012 session.

It’s unreasonable to pay school workers an average of $26,000 per year and expect them to spend $12,000 to $15,000 to cover their health insurance. But that’s what many workers do. They have no other choice.

Soon, the new school year will start and employees will likely see another spike in health insurance costs, just like most years. However, this year’s budget crisis restricted the Legislature from adding any financial buffer to cushion school employees from premium increases. Without reform, we run the risk of thousands more of dedicated bus drivers, custodians and school security officers to look towards the government for assistance, placing even more of a challenge on the social safety net. That’s an unfair expectation to place on employees who are so critical to making our schools run smoothly.

Public school employees like me support reforming the K-12 insurance system because we believe it will result in a system that is fair to all education employees, is more efficient and costs the taxpayers less money.

Judi Owens, of Liberty Lake, is president of Public School Employees of Washington (http://www.pseclassified.org/) and serves on the Liberty Lake City Council.