Arkansas Lawmakers: Action Needed on Teacher Insurance

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Monday, Sep. 9, 2013 2:53 pm  

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas lawmakers on Monday said a short-term fix is needed to address the spiraling cost of health insurance for teachers, with some legislators calling for a special session before premium increases of up to 50 percent hit in January.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, the only person who can call a special session, said the governor doesn't have any plans yet to ask lawmakers to reconvene at the Capitol.

Dozens of teachers from across the state packed a committee hearing room as a House and Senate panel met jointly to discuss the looming hike in insurance premiums. A state board last month approved increasing premiums by as much as 50 percent for the 47,000 teachers on the state plan starting Jan. 1. For example, the premium for family coverage under the most popular plan will increase from $1,029 to $1,528 a month.

Teachers are offered insurance on separate plans from other state employees. The health insurance plans offered to state employees are identical, but have lower premiums because the state contributes more money for each budgeted position.

Sen. Jason Rapert, chairman of the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee, called on Beebe to convene a special session so lawmakers can prevent the premium hikes from taking effect. State employee benefits division officials said an additional $53 million would be needed to keep the premium rates at their current levels.

"There's no reason why we can't come to some consensus on what we want to do, call a session for five days, seven days, whatever that might be, come down here and do what needs to be done for the teachers," Rapert, R-Conway, told reporters. "We're sent here to take care of the state's business. We realize at this point this situation is going to cause a lot of turmoil for these teachers and their families."

Rapert, who said the state could use part of its $300 million surplus to help prevent the insurance premiums increasing, said any special session would need to include work on long-term fixes to the insurance program.

Beebe's office said the governor will continue discussing the insurance costs with legislators but didn't plan on calling them back to the Capitol. If not called back for a special session, the earliest lawmakers could address the premiums is when they return in February for a session focused primarily on the state's budget.

"It's clearly a systemic issue, and you have to look at that as much as you look at any short-term fixes," DeCample said.

The state contributes $50 million a year toward the teacher insurance plans, and school districts are required to contribute at least $131 per month for each worker. Starting Jan. 1, that required contribution from the districts will increase to $150 per month.

State officials say that flat funding for the teacher insurance, combined with rising medical costs, large major claims and other factors have created the need for higher premiums.

Jill Bateman, a teacher at Greene County Technical School in Paragould who attended the hearing, said the premium increases mean that she'll have to pay an additional $117 a month for her insurance policy for herself and her husband. Bateman said she had already moved into a lower tier plan with a deductible to cut costs.

"That's a car payment, that's part of a house payment, that's groceries that I could use that money for," Bateman said. "But it goes toward that now, so I have to do without something else."

Sen. Johnny Key, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers will likely have several more hearings to come up with a plan on how to address the insurance hike.

"Any idea is on the table," Key, R-Mountain Home, said. "I don't think anyone is ruling anything out, whether it be restructuring the plans or giving the districts the opportunity to go shop for their own. There's no consensus at this point on what the solution might be."

Rep. James McLean, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he thinks it'll take a combination of structural changes and additional funding. McLean said he wants the issue addressed either in a special session or next year's fiscal session.

"There's no more road to kick the can down. We're already there," McLean, D-Batesville, said. "It's time to take action now."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)



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