March 19--Charles Bickenheuser said he and his wife are treated well by their health care coverage.
The two Pasco School District teachers have individual insurance plans that don't require them to pay out-of-pocket premiums. Their coverage paid for Bickenheuser's heart valve replacement several years ago, as well as a surgery for his wife.
Now, though, he said they're considering retiring earlier and moving to Bickenheuser's home state of Montana because of a proposal in the Washington Senate to establish a single insurance policy for all public school employees.
By his understanding, Bickenheuser said it would cost him and his wife an additional $600 to $700 a month at least.
"(That's) a big piece of change," he said.
Senate Bill 6442 is in the Senate Rules Committee, waiting to move to the Senate floor for a vote. And everyone is saying something different about how the bill would affect school employees, taxpayers and district budgets.
Teachers say the bill is an unnecessary government intrusion into their health care that would cost taxpayers and districts more money.
"It isn't that we have this amazing Cadillac plan," said Jeri Morrow, president of the Richland Education Association.
Classified employees -- custodians, school secretaries, nurses and para-educators -- and their representatives said the bill is necessary to level the playing field for all school employees and prepare for health care costs that are only going up.
"Classified employees are the canary in the coal mine," said Heather Meier, communications coordinator for the Public School Employees of Washington.
Tri-City school district officials, however say they either don't yet know of the possible effects of the legislation or don't expect it to change their budgets.
"It doesn't look like this bill would be of any savings or cost to the district," said Lorraine Cooper, spokeswoman for the Kennewick School District.
Currently, teachers and classified employees and their unions negotiate with their school districts for health care coverage.
For teachers, monthly costs depend on the level of coverage they want and how many people are covered under that plan. The lowest cost plan costs from $466 for an individual to up to $1,056 for a whole family. More extensive coverage costs even more, with a monthly cost of more than $2,000 for a whole family.
The school district's share of that depends on how many years of service the employee has with the district and their salary level.
The cumulative cost to the state for the hundreds of different health care plans is estimated at $1 billion a year, according to a legislative report.
If approved, SB 6442 would pool all public school employees into one group and have them all fall under one health insurance plan. The plan would be administered by a new state agency, the School Employees Benefits Board.
Leslee Caul, spokeswoman for the Pasco School District, said the district does not have a position on the bill and administrators have not done a cost analysis.
Steve Aagaard, spokesman for the Richland School District, said he wasn't sure if the true costs of the proposal are known. Rich Puryear, the Richland district's finance director, said he had not analyzed the potential fiscal impact.
Lawmakers, including state Sens. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, and Jana Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, said the consolidation of plans would save taxpayers money. They've also said the new system would be more equitable for classified staff, who typically lose more of their paycheck to health care costs.
The Public School Employees, or PSE, supports the legislation. Meier said some classified employees pay $1,500 to $1,600 a month for health care coverage. The higher cost compared to what teachers pay is because classified employees work fewer hours and have lower salary levels.
Additionally, the pool of classified employees contributing to health care is smaller and fluctuates as people drop or take on coverage, meaning those employees don't necessarily pay the same amount each month, she said.
The Washington Association of School Administrators supports the bill, pointing out that it provides more equity between school employees, reduces district administrative responsibility when it comes to providing health care benefits and adds increased transparency on how tax dollars are spent.
Proponents also claim the bill would make coverage more affordable in the longterm for all school employees.
Teachers, their local unions and the Washington Education Association, however, have said they have a number of problems with the legislation.
Jim Gow, WEA regional director, said the financial report provided to the Senate indicates it will cost the state $44.8 million to establish the new system. And teachers also would have to pay a monthly fee as part of their coverage.
Morrow said costs also would go up for many teachers, as the cost of individual coverage would increase and married teachers working in the same district would no longer be able to maintain individual accounts.
She and others pointed out that teachers currently cost the state less in health care costs than other state employees.
A report on the proposal by the Washington Health Care Authority said it expects positive results of consolidating public school employee health care.
However, districts would no longer receive a set amount of money per employee from the state to cover health care costs. That amount would vary depending on the employee's selected coverage level, leaving districts on the hook, at least at first, for covering unforseen costs of employee care.
Another concern: It's not entirely known how the new plan would affect premiums. And Gow said it is not clear what benefits a single plan would cover.
(c)2012 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)
Visit Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.) at www.tri-cityherald.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services