Arkansas Lawmakers Approve Teacher Insurance Fixes

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas lawmakers on Friday approved legislation aimed at reducing health insurance rate increases of up to 50 percent that are otherwise set to hit thousands of teachers next year.

The House and Senate passed identical but separate proposals that call for using $43 million in state surplus money this year to lower teachers' insurance premiums. Those measures are expected to head to the opposite chambers for final votes Saturday.

"The short-term fix is just getting the money to stop the bleeding," Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Friday after the Senate passed the surplus measure on a 34-0 vote. "The long-term fix is making the substantial changes needed to the insurance system. ... We have to do a lot of work to make sure that what we have going forward for these employees is the right thing and then to balance it with what's right for taxpayers."

A state board in August 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 would increase from $1,029 to $1,528 a month.

State officials say a total of $54 million is needed to keep teachers' rates at the current level. The proposals are expected to lower the premium increases to 10 percent.

The House on Friday also approved a series of long-term changes to the insurance program that supporters say are needed to keep it sustainable. That proposal, which passed on a 90-0 vote, includes a requirement that the teacher insurance plans include a deductible and the creation of a task force to recommend further systemic changes. It now heads to the Senate.

"It gives us time to take care of these teachers and school employees, find out what the problem is and how we need to fix it," said Rep. Tommy Wren, D-Melbourne, who chairs the House Insurance and Commerce Committee.

Friday marked the second day of a special session called to address the teacher insurance premiums. Gov. Mike Beebe called the session after he was assured by legislative leaders there were enough votes to pass the measures.

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