Texas teach­ers shoul­der bur­den of sky­rock­et­ing health care costs

State con­tri­bu­tion of $75 a month flat since 2002

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Al­lie Mor­ris AUSTIN BUREAU

AUSTIN — Stephanie C. Quinn works year-round at New Braun­fels ISD as a cur­ricu­lum spe­cial­ist, but af­ter hours she con­sults for smaller dis­tricts as far away as the Pan­han­dle and Gulf Coast. Her hus­band, an as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal, has started bar­tend­ing at mu­sic fes­ti­vals in Austin.

The cou­ple needs the ex­tra money to cover their soar­ing health in­sur­ance costs. Pre­mi­ums for fam­ily cov­er­age un­der the state­spon­sored plan for Texas ed­u­ca­tors start at over $1,000 a month — roughly twice as much as a decade ago. To avoid that cost, Quinn and her hus­band split the fam­ily onto two in­sur­ance plans, but still face big bills.

“It’s over $1,000 a month out of my pocket ev­ery month just for med­i­cal stuff, some­times up to $1,500,” said Quinn, who has four chil­dren, ages 6 to 17. “We’re try­ing to off­set that.”

Texas ed­u­ca­tors, like Quinn, and lo­cal school dis­tricts are in­creas­ingly shoul­der­ing the bur­den of sky­rock­et­ing health care costs as the state has kept its own con­tri­bu­tion flat over the past 16 years.

So as the Leg­is­la­ture pledges to boost pay for teach­ers — wages in Texas lag the na­tional av­er­age by $7,000 a year — many ed­u­ca­tors say that with­out a se­ri­ous fix for health in­sur­ance, ris­ing health care costs would quickly eat up any pay bump.

Pre­mi­ums for TRS Ac­tiveCare — in­sur­ance of­fered at roughly 90 per­cent of Texas school dis­tricts — have steadily risen since the plan started in 2002. In

that time the state hasn’t in­creased its $75 monthly con­tri­bu­tion to em­ployee pre­mi­ums. Dis­tricts are re­quired to chip in $150 a month, but many are pay­ing more to try and keep cov­er­age af­ford­able.

“The state hasn’t con­trib­uted more, but some­body has to pay for it,” said She­leah Reed, a spokes­woman for Al­dine ISD, a dis­trict north of Hous­ton where more than 85 per­cent of stu­dents qual­ify for free-or-re­duced lunch. “Of course, what­ever you are spend­ing in ad­di­tional funds, you’re not spend­ing it in the class­room.”

Teach­ers and school staff pick up the re­main­ing premium cost — a share that has more than dou­bled since 2002, ac­cord­ing to the Teacher Re­tire­ment Sys­tem which over­sees TRS Ac­tiveCare. The ris­ing costs are cut­ting into teacher take-home pay and some­times out­pace salary in­creases, said Monty Ex­ter, a lob­by­ist for the As­so­ci­a­tion of Texas Pro­fes­sional Ed­u­ca­tors. Texas teach­ers make on av­er­age $52,575 a year, ac­cord­ing to data from the Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

“If your health care costs are so out-of-con­trol, it’s caus­ing your salary to go down year-over-year. That’s an is­sue,” Ex­ter said.

To avoid big bills, ed­u­ca­tors say they’ve de­clined crit­i­cal — but costly — med­i­cal care, in­clud­ing CT scans and pre­scrip­tion medicine. Some have taken on sec­ond jobs. Oth­ers have re­moved chil­dren and spouses from their in­sur­ance plans, in fa­vor of cov­er­ing only them­selves with high-de­ductible plans.

State em­ploy­ees get more

Rep. Roland Gu­tier­rez, D-San An­to­nio, filed a bill this ses­sion to raise the state con­tri­bu­tion so ed­u­ca­tors wouldn’t have to pay a premium for em­ployee-only cov­er­age. The to­tal cost to the state has yet to be cal­cu­lated, he said.

“We need to come up with some sus­tain­able way to make sure we have par­ity across the na­tion on teacher salary, but part of the ben­e­fit pack­age is the teacher ac­tive in­sur­ance plan,” he said.

The state, mean­while, con­trib­utes more than $480 a month to full-time state em­ploy­ees’ in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums, mean­ing they pay $0 for the in­di­vid­ual-only plan. The premium for fam­ily cov­er­age un­der the most pop­u­lar plan starts at $538 a month, with the state con­tribut­ing over $1,200, ac­cord­ing to the Em­ploy­ees Re­tire­ment Sys­tem of Texas which ad­min­is­ters health in­sur­ance for the roughly 141,000 ac­tive state work­ers, in­clud­ing law­mak­ers.

So far, a change in teacher health in­sur­ance ben­e­fits hasn’t been a big part of the school fi­nance con­ver­sa­tion at the Leg­is­la­ture. But House Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee Chair­man Rep. Dan Hu­berty, R-Hum­ble, said it’s some­thing law­mak­ers will look at with the ris­ing cost of health care.

Teach­ers’ pre­mi­ums vary de­pend­ing on what their school dis­trict con­trib­utes, and whom they choose to en­roll in the plan.

Al­most 60 per­cent of the 438,000 dis­trict em­ploy­ees cov­ered by TRS Ac­tive Care last year opted for the cheaper high-de­ductible plan, ac­cord­ing to TRS data.

Su­san Seaton, pres­i­dent of the San Mar­cos Ed­u­ca­tors As­so­ci­a­tion, is one of them. San Mar­cos CISD con­trib­utes al­most $300 a month so em­ploy­ees don’t pay a premium. But Seaton’s de­ductible is $2,750 with an out-of-pocket max­i­mum of $6,650. She is on track to hit both since the co-pay for her arthri­tis in­jec­tions is $1,100. Get­ting the medicine once ev­ery two weeks, like her doc­tor rec­om­mended, would eat up al­most her en­tire monthly pay­check, she said. So Seaton spa­ces the doses out over six weeks in­stead.

“That’s just for one med­i­ca­tion,” said Seaton, an el­e­men­tary school teacher. “It’s very hard on teach­ers.”

Face­book post of­fers tips

Some of the largest school dis­tricts in the state, in­clud­ing San An­to­nio ISD and North East ISD, fund their own in­sur­ance plans, which gives them more flex­i­bil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate rates. Still, dis­tricts with­out TRS Ac­tive Care face ris­ing costs, too. North East ISD said it has raised its con­tri­bu­tion to em­ployee pre­mi­ums by $100 within the past four years. The San An­to­nio dis­trict con­trib­utes at least $360 a month to­ward em­ployee pre­mi­ums — not in­clud­ing the state por­tion — but teach­ers still strug­gle.

David Garza, an early ed­u­ca­tion teacher with the dis­trict, hit his head in a bike ac­ci­dent late last year, but de­clined a CT scan that would have cost him $800 in ad­di­tion to a co-pay, he said. Garza couldn’t af­ford the ex­pense so close to the hol­i­days, he said.

“I ended up go­ing for a cheaper op­tion,” he said. “In lieu of CT scan, I got X-rays done.” Doc­tors didn’t find any bro­ken bones, but he could not be sure with­out the scan, he said.

Some dis­tricts strug­gle to raise con­tri­bu­tions, and as a re­sult, risk los­ing qual­i­fied teach­ers. Lupita Vil­lar­real left her job teach­ing el­e­men­tary school at Har­lan­dale ISD to take a lower-pay­ing li­brar­ian po­si­tion in a neigh­bor­ing dis­trict last year. Her salary is less, but Vil­lar­real ends up pock­et­ing more money each month since her health in­sur­ance costs are lower. It’s the case even as Har­lan­dale in­creased its con­tri­bu­tions to em­ployee health care costs by $25 a month in 2018.

“Here’s the thing that both­ers me: If other dis­tricts are able to pro­vide for their teach­ers, that means that qual­ity teach­ers are not go­ing to be in ev­ery dis­trict,” she said. “That’s so un­fair to cer­tain dis­tricts like Har­lan­dale be­cause those kids are just as de­serv­ing of good qual­ity teach­ers.”

Quinn, whose dis­trict con­trib­utes more than what’s re­quired to­ward em­ployee pre­mi­ums, re­cently filmed a 10-minute Face­book video ex­plain­ing how she and her hus­band split plans to save around $300 a month. It racked up over 45,000 views, just a few thou­sand shy of Gov. Greg Ab­bott’s lat­est Face­book video call­ing for prop­erty tax and school fi­nance re­form.

“We pay all this money ev­ery month,” Quinn said. “In all hon­esty, I would rather them tackle health care than give us a $5,000 raise.”

“The state hasn’t con­trib­uted more, but some­body has to pay for it. Of course, what­ever you are spend­ing in ad­di­tional funds, you’re not spend­ing it in the class­room.” She­leah Reed, a spokes­woman for Al­dine ISD

Kin Man Hui / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Sixth-grade teacher Stephanie Quinn works with Halle Hu­ber at New Braun­fels Mid­dle School.

Kin Man Hui / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Stephanie Quinn, a New Braun­fels Mid­dle School sixth-grade teacher, works with stu­dents Fri­day. State law­mak­ers are pledg­ing to boost teach­ers’ pay this ses­sion with a pro­posed $5,000 raise. But many ed­u­ca­tors say that with­out a se­ri­ous fix for health in­sur­ance, a pay bump will quickly be eroded by ris­ing premium costs.

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