Change comes to state health care plans for school employees

  • Mon Aug 5th, 2019 5:30pm
  • News

By Katie Gillespie

The Columbian

The Washington State Health Care Authority last week announced the latest details in a slowly trickling stream of information about new school employee health care plans: the monthly premiums staff can expect to pay.

It’s the most recent bit of information about massive changes coming to the way Washington insures school employees, from bus drivers to administrators. Beginning Jan. 1, the School Employee Benefits Board, a program of the Health Care Authority, will administer health insurance and other benefits to all public school employees and union-represented educational service districts.

Until now, individual school districts have purchased and bargained health care plans locally using state dollars. The Health Care Authority said that created disparities in affordability and access across the state, especially between individual plans and family plans.

The new program, to which the Legislature allocated $318.7 million in the 2019-2021 biennium, will set more equitable premiums for school employees across the state while insuring more people, according to the Health Care Authority.

Still, school staff and districts still face uncertainty about how they might be affected. Budget officials already grappling with budget deficits note that the changes will likely come with a higher price tag to districts.

“It’s a good thing that we can provide great benefits to our employees,” said Brett Blechschmidt, chief financial officer for Vancouver Public Schools. But, he added, “we have several things in our mission that we need to stay focused on and we make sure we’re resourcing.”

Changes to premiums

Available plans will vary across the state, but here in Clark County, school staff will be eligible for a series of Kaiser Permanente Northwest policies, the designs of which are still being hammered out. School staff can also choose from the Health Care Authority’s self-insured Uniform Medical Plans, which will carry similar or the same benefits as Uniform plans under the state’s Public Employees Benefits Board.

The School Employee Benefits Board approved premiums with both insurers at the end of July. A mid-tier Kaiser Permanente Northwest health care plan, for example, will cost $41 a month for employees alone, $72 for an employee and their children, $82 for an employee and their spouse, and $123 for an employee and their entire family.

Broadly, school employees who only pay for themselves will see increases in their premiums, while families will see their premiums decrease, according to the Health Care Authority and the unions that represent school employees. That’s because the Legislature dictated that family premiums can cost no more than three times an individual’s coverage.

“There will be a lot more affordability for dependent coverage than what we’ve been getting,” said Dave Iseminger, the Health Care Authority’s director of employees and retirees benefits.

It’s a far cry from historical disparities between individual coverage and family coverage costs in Washington. A 2016 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee found that public school employees pay about 7.6 times more for full-family coverage than employee-only coverage.

One plan highlighted in that study saw employees paying $3 in monthly premiums for themselves and $848 monthly premiums for a family plan.

“The way it’s structured now, people can’t afford to put their families on,” said Tricia Schroeder, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 925, which represents classified employees like bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

Iseminger said he recently heard from an employee stunned to see an $1,100 a month drop in their health care premiums.

“We’ve had a lot of shocked families,” he said.

More insured at higher costs

There are also significant changes to who qualifies under the state health care plan. Part-time employees who work at least 630 hours a year will now qualify to have their coverage paid by the state, down from 1,440 hours a year.

The Public School Employees of Washington, which also represents classified public school staff like secretaries and clerks, estimates more than 36,000 part-time employees will qualify for coverage under the new policy.

“This is a game changer for classified employees,” said Doug Nelson, SEIU 1948 government relations director. “It’s life-changing for many of our members.”

But the state will only cover the costs for employees who fall under what is known as the “prototypical schools model,” a formula set by the state to determine how many school staff will be funded by state dollars.

School districts often use local levy dollars to pay for additional counselors, nurses, teachers and other employees. Now, they must also use local dollars to match the rates the state is paying for health insurance, including those part-time employees who will now qualify for insurance.

Vancouver Public Schools’ Blechschmidt was unable to say exactly what the financial impact might be on district, but he estimated it will be at least “several hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional expenses.”

“Nobody wants to advocate against good health care,” Blechschmidt said. But, he added, “how do we pay for it, and what’s the right cost distribution?”

Open enrollment for SEBB plans runs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 15. Coverage under the new plans will start on Jan. 1.