published Thursday, August 28th, 2014

UPDATE: School board limits insurance for employee spouses

Teachers and others attend the Hamilton County school board meeting on possible changes to employees' health insurance.
Teachers and others attend the Hamilton County school board meeting on possible changes to employees' health insurance.
Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County school board didn't waste time Thursday changing the way the school system's health care plan handles spouses.

The board unanimously made the following change just after 5:30 p.m. a little more than half an hour after their special meeting began.

The only way spouses can stay on the school's health plan is if they sign an affidavit saying they don't have insurance through their job.

If a spouse doesn't have insurance through their non-school job, they can get school insurance — for $100 extra a month.

"If they have insurance where they work, they must take that," central office administrator Leon Rash said. "They can't be on our plan."

The change will affect some 1,700 teachers whose spouses are on the school's plan.

Read more in Friday's Times Free Press.

Earlier report:

The room was buzzing minutes before the Hamilton County school board began its meeting at 5 p.m. today to decide what changes to make to employees' health insurance.

Teachers were seated throughout the room, and they packed the last row of seats with hand-written signs at the ready that said such things as "None of the Above," "Teachers Need Respect, and "More Work, less pay."

The board is expected to choose between three options to save millions: Charging school employees an extra $100 a month out-of-pocket to keep spouses on the school's health care plan; booting spouses off the plan entirely if the spouse has nonschool insurance available, or replacing the school's insurance with a high-deductible plan.

"One hundred extra dollars a month is going to be a killer for us," said Susan Kite, a librarian at East Ridge Elementary School who has 32 years of teaching experience.

Kite and her disabled husband can't afford to pay the extra $100 or find supplemental insurance for him, she said.

Kite wants the district to slow down.

"Too fast and furious," she said of the proposed changes.

Also in the crowd was retired teacher Samevelyn Morgan Rock, who made an unsuccessful bid to run for the school board seat held by David Testerman, who represents East Ridge.

"That's the reason I ran: To stop this kind of mess," said Rock, a past president of the Hamilton County Education Association, the teacher's union.

IF YOU GO

What: Special called meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education

When: 5 p.m.

Where: Central office, Hickory Valley Road at Bonny Oaks Drive

  • photo
    Superintendent Rick Smith listens during a meeting in this file photo.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Hamilton County Education Association President Sandy Hughes speaks to reporters and editors of the Chattanooga Times Free Press in this Jan. 21, 2014, file photo.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Previous story:

In 33 years of teaching, Jenni Oliver had never written a letter to the school board — until Wednesday.

Oliver shared her pain and upset over proposed cuts to Hamilton County Schools employees’ health benefits. Board members will vote on the changes at a meeting that starts at 5 p.m. today.

“What is this saying to them? You are not important, you are not valued, you will take what is given to you,” Oliver, an assistant principal at East Hamilton Middle-High School, said in her letter to the board. “In a time when we are asking our teachers to do so much more with so little, they are now being asked to take, in essence, a pay cut.”

The board will weigh three options at its meeting tonight:

Under option one, school employees will pay $100 more out-of-pocket each month to keep a spouse insured.

Under option two, spouses will be denied school insurance — provided the spouses can get insurance through their nonschool job — and everyone’s prescription co-pays would increase. Both options would save the district an estimated $5 million a year.

The third option, a high-deductible plan with a pre-tax health savings account, could save the district as much as $12.7 million — but would be an abrupt departure from the current plan. A family would pay a $5,000 deductible under option three.

“I’ve had a lot of angst about it, having been a teacher,” District 7 school board member Donna Horn said. “I don’t really have a sense how everybody’s going to vote.”

Horn, who represents the East Hamilton area, sought teachers’ input on which option they preferred. She said Wednesday she had gotten close to 90 replies.

“I’m thinking that option one may be my preferred option,” Horn said. “I’m basing that on the information that I’ve gotten from the teachers in my district.”

Option one would affect the fewest employees, School Superintendent Rick Smith said, since 1,700 of the district’s 4,678 employees have a spouse on the plan, and only those 1,700 employees would have to pay. Option two would affect just about everyone, he said, since most people get prescriptions of one sort or another.

The school district’s health insurance covers about 10,000 people, Smith said, when spouses and children are added in.

“Until this year, we’ve had to raise health insurance premiums twice in the past 12 years,” he said.

Employees’ monthly premiums went from $25 a month to $100 in the 2010-11 school year, Smith said. In the 2012-13 school year, he said, the cost for dependents increased by $75 a month.

The district spends $50 million annually on health care, health care consultant Ed Adams said, and that’s estimated to increase to $53.3 million in 2015, if nothing’s done.

Hamilton County Education Association President Sandy Hughes doesn’t think the district could legally choose option three, since the high-deductible plan isn’t as good as what’s offered to state employees.

“These big-deductible plans, I think that’s a violation of state law,” Hughes said. “Our plan has to be at least as good as the state insurance plan.”

This will mark the first time since 1978 that the school district has changed employees’ health insurance plans outside of a collective bargaining agreement.

“This came pretty much out of nowhere,” Hughes said of the proposed cuts.

Under statewide changes adopted in 2011 in Tennessee, local school boards don’t have to enter agreements with teachers. Hamilton County hasn’t been affected until now, because the school district reached a three-year contract in 2011 with teachers that just expired July 1.

Even without a contract, teachers should have a place at the negotiation table to “collaboratively conference,” Hughes said, under the state law that did away with teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Smith said the district has to decide in time for employees to participate in an open enrollment period in October. Teachers didn’t have a representative on the committee considering cuts, because there’s no contract.

“There’s no union right now,” he said. “That’s the problem. Who do you include?”

Horn said board members weren’t on the committee of four school administrators and the district’s consultant, Adams, that analyzed ways to cut health care costs. Too many people on the committee would have made it unwieldy, she said.

“We just have to finalize this,” Horn said. “And I’m hoping we can do it.”

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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