published Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Teachers' plan envy of many

Hamilton County Schools employees may not get much sympathy from the average Chattanooga worker after the revelation Thursday that teachers and others may have to pay an additional $100 a month to keep their spouses on the school district's health plan.

The higher cost of health insurance is never good news, but teachers and other system employees have a plan their employee benefits manager said in December was "kind of unheard of."

With no deductible and low co-payments, the high-cost, low-cost-sharing insurance plan is so good it nearly qualifies for the Affordable Care Act's so-called "Cadillac tax," which is set to take effect in 2018.

School officials said the plan doesn't quite reach the Cadillac threshold, which targets certain no- to low-deductible plans, but they had warned in December that some type of adjustment would need to be made to offset rising costs.

Thursday's announcement by the Hamilton County Board of Education indicates the system wants to shear about $5 million from its $50 million-plus annual health care cost.

Among the options to reach the cost savings include the additional $100 out-of-pocket cost or having spouses buy insurance from their own employers if those plans are available. Increasing pharmacy co-payments also is on the table.

The decision -- a vote on which was put off for a week -- will affect more than a third of the system's employees (1,700 out of 4,678), so nearly two-thirds wouldn't pay the extra $100 if that's the route the system takes.

Among the other niceties in the system's current Cigna Health Maintenance Organization plan, MRIs, CTs, X-rays, blood work, prenatal and postnatal care are all free with in-network providers. In addition, a specialist visit runs $20, the outpatient copay for surgery is $50, and hospitalizations and emergency room visits are $100.

The system's preferred provider plan requires a $450 deductible, then covers 90 percent of all costs.

"It is one of the best and therefore one of the most costly of any other school system across the state," Ed Adams, the county's risk consultant, said in December.

Whichever way the school board decides to go on cutting the $5 million -- and Adams said a committee looking at cutting costs was open to "out of the box" solutions -- employees would switch from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's premium Network P to Network S, a savings of $1.3 million. And either way it goes, the cost of emergency room visits would increase to $250 for employees on the HMO plan.

Going into the 2013-2014 school year, the system increased the payroll deduction for dependents' coverage and created a high-deductible plan -- mandated as an option by Obamacare -- but officials knew more needed to be done.

For years, the system had used its generous health insurance plan as a recruiting tool to accentuate what many felt were relatively lower salaries. But now the system is being forced to go the way of many large employers in controlling costs.

Hamilton County government, whose plan had been deemed a "Cadillac plan," went down this route a year ago. Even at that, county officials said at the time, its employees' health care was projected to cost $23 million, up $3.7 million from the previous year.

"Recognizing the changes that the Affordable Care Act was going to bring, and also the fact that we're trying to control costs -- it just made sense to put everyone on a more traditional plan," Alecia Poe, the county's human resources director, said in December.

The city of Chattanooga's health plan does not meet the definition of a "Cadillac plan," Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Mayor Andy Berke, said in December.

Going into the 2013-2014 school year, Hamilton County Schools teachers had received three raises -- from 1 to 2.33 percent -- in five years, according to newspaper archives. Last September, they were voted a onetime bonus of 1 percent and a 3 percent raise, retroactive to July 1. Meanwhile, some Chattanoogans haven't seen a raise since the 2008 Great Recession.

Teachers -- and all Chattanoogans -- also benefit from the fact the city's cost of living is almost 8 percent lower than the national average, including lower costs for health care, according to the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness.

So while nobody wants to have to pay more, school employees can relish the fact their benefits are far better than most.

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Instead of only using percentages and total costs, why not also include some salaries? While I don't have access to the average salaries, beginning teachers make only $36,044 (http://www.hcde.org/Download.asp?L=1&LMID=&PN=Pages&DivisionID=14293&DepartmentID=&SubDepartmentID=&SubP=Level1Page&Act=Download&T=3&I=20791). It might be interesting to compare not just benefits, but also salaries for teachers across Tennessee and North Georgia.

Instead of pointing out how lucky teachers are, perhaps we should view others as unlucky and begin working to provide a better level of health care to all.

August 23, 2014 at 8:20 a.m.
GaussianInteger said...

This is a disservice to teachers here in Hamilton County and perspective teachers that Hamilton County needs to ensure students can receive a quality education. The raise that teachers received last year (which was the first in over five years) will not offset the new increased cost they will see in their insurance. So even with this new "raise" (in which the author was so quick to point out that some "in Chattanooga" have not received a raise; that of course, doesn't apply to school superintendent Rick Smith) when their cost of benefits increases in January, teachers will see less money on their paychecks than they did before their raise.

It's amazing the author of this piece feels that demonizing teachers in order to garnish support for their increase in cost and cut in health benefits for them and their families is a good idea. And we wonder why TN continues to lag towards the bottom in education. It's thinking like this that will keep Tennesseans from receiving a better education and the continuation of low wages. Bravo!

August 23, 2014 at 3:51 p.m.
GameOn said...

Teachers deserve every benefit they get. Twenty years ago, the job required far less work outside of the classroom. 10 to 15 hours total for the week would cover it. Today, the job is quite different and you can forget the old stand by line ..."they have summers off". I am married to a veteran teacher and I can assure you that she has no life of leisure. She works a minimum of 4 to 5 hours every evening at least four nights a week, 8 to 10 hours on Saturday, and another 6 to 8 on Sunday. This past summer, she spent around 30 to 35 hours per week working on school materials for the coming year. She has a love for learning, a love for teaching, and a love for mentoring children.

The job of a teacher is mentally and physically exhausting. Teachers have the daily stress of educating, discipling, and keeping with 20 students a day. Plus, our teachers are no longer are allowed to sit down in the classroom. They are required to be moving around the classroom at all times. A few years ago, my wife wore a pedometer to work and she walked 8.5 miles in the classroom for the day. Most teachers don't even get a bathroom break until class is dismissed for the day. Our teachers will need good insurance for the replacement joints, bladder tucks, and blood pressure medications in their future.

Before you envy the salary and benefits of a teacher divide it by 70 hours instead of 40. Just another great example in our society of professional people being paid unprofessional wages. It just goes to show how screwed up our country really is. We care more about football than education. Don't believe it, look up the highest paid state employees in the United States.

August 24, 2014 at 3:34 p.m.
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