January 17, 2019

Commission recommends statewide negotiations for teacher health insurance

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, and Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, speak about teacher health care. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

By Tiffany Danitz Pache

For VTDigger

A state commission issued a report Monday that blames a 10 percent teacher health care rate increase and an expected hike in taxes in 2019 on local bargaining.

The nine-member Vermont Educational Health Benefits Commission is recommending that the state implement a statewide teacher health insurance benefit.

Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature were at odds over the issue at the end of the last legislative session. In the end they failed to reach agreement. The commission was set up as a compromise that ended the prospect of a veto session last spring.

Six of the nine members on the commission voted in favor of the report. The three members that didn’t support all have backgrounds in labor.

David Provost, the chair, said the panel was very close to issuing a consensus report and could have done so with a little more time.

“I’m hopeful that moving to a statewide negotiated contract would be beneficial to school employees and taxpayers,” he said.

Each district negotiates different cost-sharing levels for teachers. The commission heard testimony about inequalities in benefits between school employees from different districts with different bargaining units. A statewide negotiation would be fairer for workers no matter where they live, according to the report.

Darren Allen, spokesperson for the Vermont NEA, the state teachers union, doesn’t buy it. He said employees have access to the same health care plans no matter where they live in the state. The Vermont Health Care Initiative, a school employee pool, offers four plans.

The teachers union maintains that local school boards and their teachers are in the best position to bargain for health care. They don’t believe rising health care costs are the result of bargaining.

Almost every teacher contract in the state is being bargained this year to move school employees to new health care plans that comply with federal law. They have lower premiums and higher out of pocket costs.

Scott said the state could save taxpayers millions of dollars with the switch to new plans. He vetoed the budget bill over a proposal to negotiate the health care portion of school employee contracts at the state level. Proponents of the plan said it would save taxpayers up to $26 million a year without hiking out-of-pocket costs for school employees. Opponents were skeptical of the savings and didn’t want to move bargaining away from local school districts.

In the end, lawmakers and the administration agreed to reduce education fund payments to local school districts by $13 million over two years. Local school districts were encouraged to negotiate an 80/20 split with teachers on one of four health care plans. If they failed to save money on health care, districts were to cut budgets.

There are only a dozen contracts still being decided, according to Allen.

Most school districts didn’t achieve savings on health care, and as a result nearly $12 million in potential savings are being left on the table. That translates to a 1.5 cent increase in property taxes, or a $30 increase for a house assessed at $200,000, according to the report.

“All we know is that the cost of (local school boards and teachers bargaining) themselves this year, resulted in approximately $11.8 million in unrealized savings,” said Nicole Mace, head of the Vermont School Board Association and a member of the commission.

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