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Teacher health insurance costs

Another thing on the list of things the Legislature needs to deal with but won’t.

Health care insurance costs for hundreds of thousands of Texas teachers and other public school employees are scheduled to go up again this fall, prompting renewed calls from educator groups for the state to pick up more of the cost of employee premiums.

The biggest increase will be experienced by those seeking basic coverage for themselves and family members. Their monthly premiums will jump $85 to a high of $1,145 a month, nearly two and a half times the national average of $472 a month. Similar coverage in the private sector would cost around $407 a month, according to a recent Bush Institute study on teacher health care costs.

“The current policy of imposing ever-greater costs on employees is not sustainable,” said Ted Melina Raab, spokesman for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “It is putting decent, affordable coverage out of reach for growing numbers of school personnel.”

More than 280,000 public school employees – roughly three in four teachers, principals, administrators and other staff – receive health insurance through the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. The insurance program, called TRS-ActiveCare, was created to provide a health care option to working teachers whose districts did not offer their own plans.

Last Friday, the TRS board agreed to increase monthly premiums across most TRS-ActiveCare plans.

Since 2002, the state’s share of premiums has remained at $75 a month. During that same period, some educators seeking coverage for just themselves have seen their premiums increase 238 percent.

Even with the state’s monthly contribution of $75 and a $150 base contribution required from school districts, some employees still will pay upwards of $920 a month for basic family coverage.

“These increases amount to pay cuts,” Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association said, noting the average teacher in the Lone Star State makes under $50,000 a year. “It really has become a burden for some of these teachers.”

This is a feature and a bug of the employer-subsidized insurance model. As we know, employers that provide health insurance plans for their employees pay a significant fraction of the cost of the premiums. This makes health insurance a lot more affordable for many people, but it means many of them have no idea how much their insurance really costs, and it means that an ever-increasing percentage of their total compensation is going to health insurance and not to, you know, salary. But that’s the world we live in, and Robison is exactly right – if the state is not upping its share of the payments, then it is like a pay cut for the teachers, since they’re bearing the full brunt of it. That’s just not right.

The solution, educator groups and districts agree, lies with the legislature. Teacher groups point to the fact that lawmakers and other state employees are covered by the Employees Retirement System of Texas health insurance plan, which pays 100 percent of monthly premiums for individuals and half of dependent coverage.

“School district employees are conveniently thought of as state employees for some things, not thought of as state employees for other things,” said Texas AFT President Linda Bridges, citing increasing performance benchmarks placed on public teachers by state officials. “We think school employees should have health care as good as the governor.”

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State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said state lawmakers have a clear role to play in reducing health care costs for teachers.

“Here is an area where clearly the state has a role to play,” said Villarreal. “Clearly, the legislature can take actions to reduce the costs for our teachers in a way that doesn’t interfere with the authority of superintendents and principals.”

State Sen. Bob Deuell, the Greenville Republican ousted by tea party candidate Bob Hall, thinks this will be a hard sell in a legislature keen on budget cuts.

“If you increase the premiums, you have essentially cut the salaries of teachers at a time when they’re not being paid enough already,” said Deuell. “I doubt very seriously the teachers are successful in getting this issue – or any other issue – through next year.”

This is where I point out that Texas’ revenue collections are going gangbusters, meaning the Legislature will have plenty of money to work with. The combination we have of unmet needs, neglected infrastructure, and available cash is one you’d think would be amenable to actually finding solutions to the problems we face. Unfortunately, that requires a level of rationality in the Legislature that doesn’t exist. Can’t do much about the Legislature but we can change direction at the top of the state. It’s the best hope we have.

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