A new day in health care is slowly on its way for Washington’s K-12 school teachers, classroom aides, part-time bus drivers and even lunchroom workers.
The new school insurance program, approved by the Legislature in June, is not going to be a quick fix. But the new system promises to be fairer for greater numbers of public school employees. Potentially 9,000 school employees and 30,000 family members could be added to insurance rolls, according to one legislative audit report.
By 2020 individual K-12 staffers will select their health insurance plans through a single state-run exchange — much like the longtime Public Employees Benefits Board that caters to 370,000 state employees, their families and state government retirees.
The soon-to-be created system is to be called the School Employee Benefits Board, or SEBB. Its offerings will replace coverage now made available by local school districts. The benefits — including the share of premiums paid by the state and workers — will be bargained statewide in 2018. That is the same way that more than two dozen state worker unions now negotiate collectively over health benefits.
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More than 200,000 school district workers and family members are expected to be covered in the new system. The state Health Care Authority, which is tasked with setting it up, runs the PEBB system. Negotiations that start in 2018 will determine the workers’ share of insurance premiums for coverage that begins in January 2020.
State workers in PEBB now pay about 15 percent of premium costs plus deductibles and co-pays, while state taxpayers contribute 85 percent.
Overhauling the K-12 employee health-care system took years to approve and will take years to implement. It was embedded in the sweeping school funding reform measure, House Bill 2242, which passed with strong bipartisan support.
Public School Employees of Washington — also known as Local 1948 of the Service Employees International Union — tried for years to secure family coverage for its part time workers but could never overcome opposition from the Washington Education Association, which represents teachers, and others.
PSE serves school staffers such as paraeducators, playground and lunchroom workers, and bus drivers. Rick Chisa, chief of staff for the union, said part time employees may end up paying more under the SEBB than today, but they’ll be getting more, too. That is because most PSE members enroll to cover themselves, or not at all, but more will likely enroll in the future for family coverage. Plus, he said, any part time worker putting in 630 or more hours a year will be eligible to buy subsidized coverage.
Reformers were helped in part by the state Supreme Court’s ruling in the McCleary case, which found the state’s overreliance on local, voter-approved property-tax levies was unconstitutional. A key part of the McCleary case was teacher compensation and benefits. Richer districts were able to use voter-approved property tax levies to fatten the pay and health benefits for staff, mainly teachers, in a way that widened inequality between districts.
The ruling has forced the state to provide full funding of the costs of basic education for all districts regardless of local wealth.
House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox of Roy is among the South Sound lawmakers who consider the K-12 insurance reform one of the significant, bipartisan accomplishments this year.
During a recent meeting with The Olympian Editorial Board, Wilcox gave a lot of credit to Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who turned the health-care equity issue into a crusade.
Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, also praised the change. Though Hunt opposed the SEBB concept in the past, he changed his mind because the state will put in more money for school employee health benefits.
Local school districts are still calculating the Legislature’s actions on school funding. Health care is just one change to digest.
One of the next steps is for Gov. Jay Inslee to appoint members to the School Employees Benefits Board by the end of September.
The Washington Education Association opposed what spokesman Rich Wood describes as state “takeover” of teachers’ health insurance.
“Healthcare is a very personal issue, and we believe in local decision-making and ensuring that educators have a voice in these decisions at the local level,” Wood said. “Under the current system, school employees work with their administration to determine which insurance plans are offered in a district, based on local needs.”
But in the end, we think the greater good — a fairer health-benefits system for more school employees and their families — outweighs the inconvenience for those lucky school employees who get coverage now and must adapt to something new.