Bill aims to make health care coverage for school districts cheaper

Intensive-needs teacher Winter Marshall-Allen says something needs to be done about the rising costs of health care. (Photo by Renee Gross/KBBI)

Funding health care coverage in Alaska’s school districts is expensive, but a new bill is attempting to reduce those costs.

House Bill 156 would allow employees from municipalities, school districts and the University of Alaska to opt into the state’s health care program. It may help districts like the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District get a leg up when negotiating health care premiums.

However, not everyone is jumping on board with the idea.

Intensive needs teacher Winter Marshall-Allen is passionate about her work at Homer High School. But outside the classroom, she is struggling to pay for health care coverage: Marshall-Allen and her family are on the school’s high deductible plan. She’s required to pay $3,000 before insurance kicks in.

“My problem is I slipped and fell in my own home and hit my head and got a concussion, and incurred an emergency room bill,” she said. “Now I’m having a hard time meeting my premiums in order to have the insurance kick in to pay the rest of the bills that I’ve acquired from that incident.”

She’s one of many district teachers and staff who are demanding better coverage. Marshall-Allen is also on the executive board for the teacher’s union and was part of a vote to strike next fall over rising health care costs.

“I see what has been brought to the table, and I know that we are working hard on our end to try and provide solutions, and I really just don’t feel that the district is really helping to meet that need,” she said.

But the district is struggling to meet the unions’ demands.

Dave Jones is the assistant superintendent for the school district. He said the bottom line is that Alaska’s school districts pay some of the highest health care costs in the nation.

“Every year those costs are increasing by 7-to-9%,” he said. “The problem is, every year the school districts do not get additional revenue to pay for that.”

Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance is trying to reduce health care costs for districts and municipalities. She’s sponsoring a bill that would allow them to opt into the state’s health insurance pool.

Jones said that could give districts more leverage with providers. On the Kenai Peninsula, health care accounts for roughly 17% of the district’s fiscal year 2020 expenditures.

“The idea behind the larger pool is, that’s when we then have the ability to go to the doctors and say, if you want to serve the people in this pool, this is what we’re willing to pay,” Jones said. “We won’t pay any more.”

Jones supports the measure, but he worries about making participation voluntary. He said larger school districts may not have incentives to join the group.

Vance understands the concern.

“But when we mandate something, especially in health care, that causes more caution with people where they feel pushed that things are happening to them,” Vance said. “And I don’t want that.”

About a handful of states have implemented similar systems like the one Vance is suggesting, though they vary widely. And this isn’t the first time the idea has been floated: A 2017 feasibility study found that creating a bigger health care pool could save the state roughly $200 million a year.

For school districts, more state and local funding could be freed up for the classroom. Still, other school districts say it’s too early to say if they will participate if the bill moves forward.

The teachers union on the Kenai Peninsula has not yet taken a position on the bill, but its president expressed concern about districts relinquishing control over health care negotiations to the state.

Vance said that the state’s Department of Administration oversees the health care program.

“Everyone is able to communicate with the Department of Administration on the health coverage just like they would under their school plan,” she said.

Back at Homer High School, Marshall-Allen said as an employee, she’s worried how the bill could affect her coverage, which currently is still being negotiated by the teachers union and the district. Still, she said if the move could reduce the cost of her monthly premium, it may prevent her from having to look  for a new job.

“I know that my expertise as a teacher and in the field that I work at is definitely needed, and I shouldn’t have to take my talent and my ability and my passion and have to look in the private sector in order to be meeting my needs of myself and my family,” she said.

The district and union have until the fall to hammer out a deal over health care. If they don’t, teachers like Marshall-Allen plan to strike.

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