By Tiffany Danitz Pache
As legislators head toward another showdown with Gov. Phil Scott over school spending, the state’s teachers union has pitched a statewide health insurance plan that they say would save taxpayer money and ensure equity for employees.
More than 100 delegates at the union’s annual assembly voted last Saturday for the statewide benefit, which would avoid local-level negotiations that Scott says are costing the state millions, while increasing union representation in health care talks through the creation of a new oversight committee.
“It is clear that unless our members have the opportunity to work as equals with school boards in determining their health benefits … Vermont’s public school employees will continue to see health care become less affordable,” Martha Allen, president of the union, said in a press release issued Monday.
The statement came as the Vermont Education Healthcare Initiative board was meeting on Monday. The proposed committee, evenly divided between union representatives and governor appointees, would replace VEHI as the body charged with creating and overseeing the teachers’ health care benefit.
“Ever since we lost parity on the board of the Vermont Education Health Initiative, our voice into our own health care has been dimmed,” Allen wrote to union members on Monday. Those efforts continued when the governor and school board attempted to move health care negotiations from the district to state level last year, she said.
Jeff Fannon, executive director of the state teachers union, has a seat on the five-member VEHI board, but the union once held four of eight seats and until recently two of the five.
Under the union’s plan, the reformulated committee composed half of union appointees would hash out a single plan for all state education employees. The union said the plan will help find cost savings while making insurance more equitable and affordable for school staff. And, teachers say, it would establish a balance of power between school management and employees.
“At this point, employees at Vermont-NEA can’t even get a second at a meeting if a management person doesn’t want to second a motion by an NEA representative,” Allen said in an interview.
VEHI began as a partnership of the School Board’s Insurance Trust and the Vermont-NEA, with two administrators, one from each organization, and eight members, four management and four employees. New rules under the American Health Care Act forced the Department of Financial Regulation to tell VEHI it had to restructure into a school board membership organization.
That’s when it became a five-person board leaving the Vermont-NEA with just two seats. That membership structure had representatives from four areas: a superintendent of schools, a school business manager, a school board member and two slots for union leadership.
This change occurred as school boards across the state geared up to negotiate a record number of teacher contracts because of a looming deadline to move school staff to new health care plans. When VEHI decided in March 2016 to make the most generous of four new health care plans the default, some school board members felt the unions had too much influence on the VEHI board.
When the Vermont-NEA seat came up for re-election in 2016, 118 school boards petitioned to change the bylaws to give school boards an advocate on the board for balance. VEHI voted late that year for the seat to go to the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.
Last spring, Gov. Phil Scott proposed shifting teacher health care negotiations to the state to try to garner $26 million in savings from VEHI’s switch to new plans. Scott eventually agreed instead to form a commission to look into putting a statewide benefit in place.
In December, that panel recommended statewide negotiations and shifting all teachers to the same health care benefits to provide equity across the state. But they left it to lawmakers to come up with a plan to put their recommendations in place.
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