Health costs stall talks
What teachers pay for insurance often a sticking point during negotiations.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9133; @hofiushallTT on Twitter