Teacher health benefits

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Local teachers’ contributions to health insurance premiums roughly match the county average for teachers, though area employers increasingly are looking for employees to foot more of the bill.

How much teachers should contribute and the quality of health insurance coverage has been a topic of concern in the community in the wake of Williston’s school budget defeat earlier this month.

“The reality is they need to start paying a little more,” resident Melissa LaFrance said at last week’s School Board meeting. “It’s not just me that’s saying it. There’s a lot of people in this community that are saying it.”

Parent Mark Fischer agreed.

“I’m independently employed,” he said. “For a family of four I’m currently paying $15,000 a year for insurance with a $3,500 deductible. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy.”

Williston and Champlain Valley Union High School teachers currently contribute 10 percent to the cost of the basic health insurance premium. Single, two-person and family plans are all options, ranging from $5,622 to $14,815 annually, according to data provided by Chittenden South Supervisory Union, of which Williston schools and CVU are a part.

Though a 10 percent teacher contribution was typical among virtually all Chittenden County school districts last year ( Colchester, at 20 percent, was the exception), current and future contract years show school boards are inching toward expecting more from teachers.

Chittenden East Supervisory Union, which saw a six-day strike last year in part over health insurance benefits, requires teachers to pay 11 percent of premiums this year; next year it will be 12 percent.

Burlington, Essex and Milton school districts and the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union all have similar contracts with teachers contributing, on average, 11 and 12 percent in the next two years.

In contrast, employees of the State of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care contribute 20 percent toward their health insurance premiums. University of Vermont full-time salaried staff members pay on a sliding scale. Those at UVM earning just under $61,000 (the average Williston teacher salary) currently pay 16 percent toward their health insurance premiums. Town of Williston employees pay 10 percent of the premium up to 2 percent of their salaries, according to Susan Lamb, the town’s finance director.

Aggregated state and national statistics indicate that most large and mid-size businesses generally look for employee contributions of 20 percent, said Dian Kahn, a director of analysis and data management in the Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration. County-specific information is not available, Kahn said.

Still, premium costs and employee shares do not tell the whole story, according to several individuals who deal with employee benefits.

“It’s really tough to compare plans because they’re all different from each other,” said Harold Schwartz, a State of Vermont human resources director.

Doctor visit co-pays, deductibles, prescription coverage, and mental health coverage are among the variables that make it difficult to accurately compare the quality of coverage between different plans available from different employers.

Some taxpayers at last week’s school budget meeting said they want to see teachers contributing a heftier share of premiums now.

If teachers contributed 20 percent instead of 10 percent, about $80,000 would be saved in the Williston budget, according to Bob Mason, chief executive officer for the supervisory union. That’s roughly half of a percentage point of the $15.8 million Williston schools budget voters rejected on Town Meeting Day.

Negotiating teachers’ contributions is not the answer for Mark Hage, director of benefit programs for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association that assists teachers in the bargaining process.

“The real goal is to make sure all Vermonters have access to high quality affordable health care from birth to death,” Hage said. “That goal is not going to be advanced by having any teacher or state employee or any unionized or non-unionized worker … pay more of their health insurance. What that does is simply shift costs.”

Negotiations for a teachers’ contract to replace the one that expires in June are still underway, according to Scott Cameron, an attorney representing the Chittenden South Supervisory Union school boards. Negotiations will likely continue til May 23, the expected date of mediation, Cameron said in an e-mail.