Health costs stall talks

What teach­ers pay for in­sur­ance of­ten a stick­ing point dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions.

The Times-Tribune - - Front Page - BY SARAH HOFIUS HALL AND KATH­LEEN BOLUS STAFF WRIT­ERS

As health care costs rise na­tion­ally and across school dis­tricts in North­east Penn­syl­va­nia, teach­ers con­tracts have become harder to set­tle.

With Abing­ton Heights teach­ers pre­par­ing for a se­cond week on strike, how much teach­ers pay for in­sur­ance could lead to tough ne­go­ti­a­tions across the re­gion. Con­tracts in both Abing­ton Heights and Scran­ton ex­pired in Au­gust, and con­tracts in Val­ley View, Mid Val­ley and For­est City ex­pire in the next year.

In Lack­awanna County, teach­ers in two dis­tricts — Scran­ton and Old Forge — pay a por­tion of their pre­mi­ums. Teach­ers in all dis­tricts pay co­pays and de­ductibles, but the is­sue of pre­mium shar­ing has led teach­ers to picket lines.

Cut­ting costs

Within the last 10 or 15 years, the Penn­syl­va­nia School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion has seen a “sig­nif­i­cant in­crease” in the num­ber of dis­tricts ne­go­ti­at­ing pre­mium shares into con­tracts, said Emily Leader, PSBA mem­ber ser­vices coun­sel.

How­ever, it’s not enough to only look at shar­ing pre­mium costs, she said. In­creas­ing de­ductibles — the amount an em­ployee must pay out of pocket be­fore in­sur­ance kicks in — or co­pays — a per-visit fee — of­ten can save more

‘Pre­mi­ums are just not go­ing to save the district the money. It’s al­ways go­ing to be an is­sue go­ing for­ward.’ Paul She­man­sky Penn­syl­va­nia State Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion

money than pre­mium shares, Leader said.

Dis­tricts can save more money by re­quir­ing em­ploy­ees to pay a per­cent­age of the pre­mi­ums, not just a set dol­lar amount, Leader said.

“An­other ar­gu­ment could be that ev­ery year when in­sur­ance costs go up, (teach­ers) are get­ting a raise,” she said. “It’s just not ob­vi­ous to you.”

When a district re­quires teach­ers to pay a por­tion of the pre­mi­ums, it’s a “cost shift in­stead of a cost sav­ings,” said Paul She­man­sky, spokesman for the Penn­syl­va­nia State Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. “A lot of dis­tricts look to do the pre­mium for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, where ac­tu­ally the real sav­ings are in the plan de­signs. You save more money with co­pays and de­ductibles.”

Teach­ers are will­ing to work to find sav­ings other ways, in­clud­ing by pay­ing higher co­pays and de­ductibles that ac­count more for us­age, he said.

“Pre­mi­ums are just not go­ing to save the district the money,” She­man­sky said. “It’s al­ways go­ing to be an is­sue go­ing for­ward.”

Abing­ton Heights of­fers

The Abing­ton Heights con­tract ex­pired last month, and dis­agree­ments over salaries and ben­e­fits have kept teach­ers out of their class­rooms since Tues­day.

The district orig­i­nally asked for teach­ers to pay 10 per­cent of their health care pre­mi­ums — or about $2,140 a year for a fam­ily — with­out of­fer­ing cost-of-liv­ing salary in­creases. The union first asked for 3.85 per­cent wage in­creases with no changes to health care.

One-year deals of­fered be­fore the strike in­cluded a 2.5 per­cent raise with health care re­main­ing the same from the union, and from the

district, a 2 per­cent raise while con­tribut­ing $80 a month to­ward health care pre­mi­ums and be­ing re­spon­si­ble for a $500 pre­scrip­tion de­ductible. Union lead­ers say the of­fer from the district amounts to a pay cut.

“In the case of our ne­go­ti­a­tions, the union has been ar­ti­fi­cially in­su­lated from these hard dis­cus­sions and the district is try­ing to take a small step in the di­rec­tion of ad­dress­ing these global chal­lenges of health care,” said Su­per­in­ten­dent Michael Ma­hon, Ph.D.

District plans

Af­ter teach­ers in Old Forge went on strike two years ago, the union even­tu­ally agreed to pre­mium shares of $9.62 per bi­weekly pay for in­di­vid­u­als — $250 per year — or $28.85 per bi­weekly pay for fam­ily cov­er­age — $750 a year. Teach­ers also re­ceived raises of ei­ther 2.1 or 3 per­cent a year, enough to cover any pre­mium shares.

The big­gest sav­ings in Old Forge came when the district capped how much teach­ers get when they opt not to take the ben­e­fits, Su­per­in­ten­dent John Rushef­ski said. In­stead of get­ting checks of up to $25,000, the yearly cap is now $7,500, he said.

Abing­ton Heights of­fers teach­ers a one-time bonus of $1,000 for dis­con­tin­u­ing in­sur­ance. In Scran­ton, teach­ers re­ceive $1,500 per year for opt­ing out of the plans.

Dun­more also sought health care sav­ings when it ap­proved a two-year con­tract in June. Teach­ers re­ceived av­er­age salary in­creases of 2.83 per­cent for this year and 3 per­cent for next year. Health care plans have not changed, but the district went from be­ing fully funded to self-funded, Su­per­in­ten­dent John Marichak said.

In­stead of pay­ing a set amount to an in­surer for each em­ployee, the district now pays some ad­min­is­tra­tive fees, but then pays claims it­self.

For a smaller district, be­ing self-funded can be a gam­ble, Marichak said. Se­ri­ous ill­nesses can lead to higher costs for the district, but five-year data showed Dun­more can save money, he said.

Mem­bers of the Scran­ton Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, who au­tho­rized the union to call

a strike but have not set a date yet, have paid pre­mi­ums for more than a decade.

Salary and health care are again stick­ing points for a new con­tract with the district, ex­pected to face a $40 mil­lion deficit by the end of the year. Both sides plan to meet with a state me­di­a­tor this week.

Scran­ton teach­ers pay be­tween $50 and $80 per bi­weekly pay­check, or be­tween $1,300 and $2,080 per year.

“I think across the county, health care is a stick­ing point,” said Rose­mary Boland, pres­i­dent of the Scran­ton Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. “I think the coun­try is go­ing to have to come to terms with it. It’s be­com­ing an is­sue for ev­ery­one.” Con­tact the writer: shofius@timessham­rock.com; 570-348-9133; @hofiushal­lTT on Twit­ter

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