Local teachers rally against proposed health care changes

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

At 32 years young, Tiffany McCormick didn’t pay any attention to her health insurance. When she got a job teaching in Washougal, she picked the cheapest plan offered.

Then she was diagnosed with cancer.

“And because of our union, because we stand together, I had choices,” a tearful McCormick told a crowd of about 500 teachers Monday.

She switched to a Kaiser Permanente insurance plan that offered more coverage, and beat the cancer, McCormick said.

“I feel safe with these plans,” she said. “You take that away, and I’m going to fight just like I fought cancer.”

That’s why the teachers and union representatives had come to the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds -- to fight against a proposal to change the way school employees get health care.

Senate Bill 6442, which also is part of the Senate budget proposal currently being debated in the Legislature, would establish a School Employees’ Benefits Board to develop new benefit plans for all school employees in the state. The board would have 12 members representing teachers, other school employees, administrators, school boards and health care experts. The board would oversee bidding out the plans to private insurers.

The selected insurance carriers would cover all of Washington’s 109,000 school employees, thereby creating efficiencies of scale, i.e. savings for the state and for many employees, proponents say.

Right now, the state’s 295 school districts have about 300 insurance plans and 1,000 different insurance pools, according to a December 2011 report by the state’s Health Care Authority.

The groups representing the various school employees are split over the proposed legislation to drastically cut those numbers.

The Washington Education Association, which represents teachers and some other

school workers, vehemently opposes the bill and is rallying members around the state to make their voices heard in Olympia. Monday’s event in Ridgefield was one such rally.

Groups representing principals and administrators support the proposed bill, as does the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That’s a fairly typical scenario -- management versus labor.

But Public School Employees of Washington, the union representing most custodians, bus drivers and other workers who don’t hold a teaching certificate, also is in favor of SB 6442. On Monday, PSE members handed out fliers at the event center gate that directly contradicted what was said inside the meeting hall.

“It’s not comfortable at all,” Rick Chisa, a PSE spokesman, said about the clash of opinions between the state’s two largest school unions.

But he said the current health plans are not fair to those school workers who make less money -- the classified employees, which means anyone in schools who doesn’t have a teaching certificate.

“Classifieds are the canary in the coal mine,” Chisa said. “They feel it first.”

The state has cut how much it sends to districts for employees’ benefits, but insurance premiums keep going up, Chisa said. Now lunch ladies and bus drivers, for example, whose hours have been cut to part-time during the budget crunch, pay a very high percentage of their income to be insured.

Young teachers with lower salaries will soon feel the pinch too, he said. This is especially true if they’re buying coverage for their whole family.

Some part-time employees who need their insurance to cover spouse and children pay as much as $1,600 per month, which leaves them with little take-home pay, Chisa said. The high premiums for family coverage were one reason the bill was written in the first place.

Family premiums

A performance review prepared for the state auditor’s office a year ago found that single employees pay just a few percent of their insurance premiums, while employees needing coverage for their whole family pay more than 40 percent of the cost.

The legislation contains new rules to adjust those numbers. Under the new proposal, employees would pay 15 percent of the premiums for their own coverage and 35 percent of the premium to cover their dependents.

But many in the crowd didn’t seem to believe that the final product of the proposal would adhere to those rules. Even those who pay high premiums for their families now said they didn’t want to risk getting a statewide system that would possibly drive up their costs.

Heidi Merritt, a first-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School in Vancouver, said that she needs to cover the whole family under her insurance since her husband lost his job. That leaves her with take-home pay of about $1,800 a month to pay student loans and feed the family of four. Merritt works another 16-20 hours in food service to pay the bills, she said.

But she’s not convinced the reform proposal would lower her health care bills.

“I’ve heard that’s not true,” Merritt said.

Robert Salazar, a second-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, said he’s not worried about himself. He has no dependents, he said.

“I’m more concerned about the families who are paying so much,” he said.

He had heard that the legislation was to lower family premiums, but he was skeptical.

“Everybody here seems to be opposed,” Salazar said.

Savings for the state

One group certainly had reason to be opposed -- those working less than 50 percent of full time. They would lose all health care benefits within five years of the proposal being enacted, which at this point is January 2014.

“Some of our people barely make a living wage,” said Rachelle Durgeloh, a clerk in the Vancouver school district. “Don’t cut budgets on the backs of people who are the working poor.”

The legislation is meant to make health care more equitable and more transparent, its supporters say. But it also is meant to save money for the state.

The auditor’s report found consolidating insurance plans into a statewide offering could save as much as $90 million per year. Others have quoted $45 million per year.

Oregon consolidated its school employees’ health care in 2007, using a system similar to that proposed here. It has saved $125 million in the last three years, according to information from Oregon’s teachers union, which now advocates for preserving Oregon’s system.

But Washington union officials say the savings might never materialize and would certainly come after the state first spends money to install the new system.

Costs to transition into the consolidated system are estimated to be $20 million, and running the system would cost about $7 million per year, not counting savings, according to the Health Care Authority report.

Union busting?

Many union members see the health care reform proposal as the first step in the state’s blocking of union activity overall.

“We are in crisis,” said Carla Camp, a teacher at Frontier Middle School and a union official.

The proposal would mean local unions could no longer negotiate benefits. Camp reminded the event center crowd of anti-union measures taken recently in Wisconsin and Ohio.

“It’s not about costs, it’s not about health care, it’s about losing our rights to bargain locally,” she told the crowd.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he wants to let teachers have their choice in health care.

“I believe in smaller government,” he said. “This should be locally bargained.”

Two years from now, the state will have a health care exchange under new federal legislation anyway, he said, making this proposal moot. The consolidated system wouldn’t even be in place by then.

“I don’t know why we’re even fighting about this now,” he said.

Harris would move to strike the portion of the Senate budget bill that reforms teachers’ insurance when it arrives in the House, he said.