BOISE, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.
Legislation to bring health insurance for Idaho school teachers and staff up to par with that of state employees cleared a unanimous Senate committee on Monday and headed for final passage in the full Senate.
“I’ve heard it said many times that the legislation before you would be a game-changer for Idaho educators,” Layne McInelly, president of the Idaho Education Association and a career teacher in the Boise School District, told the Senate Education Committee. “If anything, that’s an understatement. … For the first time in a long time, the educators I represent are hopeful.”
Currently, Idaho budgets about $8,400 per year for health insurance costs for school employees including teachers; while it spends $12,500 per year for those same costs for state employees, including legislators.
The bill, HB 443, sets up a fund where the Legislature can appropriate one-time funds, estimated at $75.5 million, to pay for the one-time buy-in costs for any school district that chooses to join the pool for the state’s self-funded employee health insurance plan. Gov. Brad Little also has recommended a $105 million a year ongoing allocation to cover the costs into the future of bringing school plans up to par. Districts could choose to join the state plan, or use the increased funds to negotiate their own better plans from insurance providers.
To partly offset the cost, HB 443 would eliminate current teacher “leadership premiums,” which provide small bonuses to teachers who take on extra work at a cost of just under $20 million a year. Backers said that was a reasonable trade-off.
Andy Grover, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, told the senators the move is “such a needed boost to the morale of Idaho’s education system.”
Rural districts, in particular, have been struggling to offer decent benefits to their employees, he said, and that’s a key factor in employee recruitment and retention.
Sen. Robert Blair, R-Lewiston, a farmer who is the substitute this year for Sen. Dan Johnson of Lewiston, attested to the problem from his own experience. His wife is now a special education teacher, he said, but before that, she was a classified employee in their local school district. Health coverage cost so much it ate up almost her entire pay, he said. “Bringing home a check at the end of the month of $4 is not very helpful. I mean, she was literally working for insurance,” he said.
School district employees, including both teachers and classified staff such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers, now pay big premiums for coverage with high deductibles that often have steep additional costs to add dependents, depending on their districts’ plans. Some lower-paid workers actually end up having to write a check to the school district for their insurance each month, because premiums exceed what they earn.
Among those speaking in support of the bill at Monday’s committee hearing was state Insurance Director Dean Cameron. “I believe every school district will benefit from this bill,” he said.
HB 443 passed the House 55-14 on Jan. 24, after an overwhelmingly positive debate. To become law, it now needs passage in the full Senate and the governor’s signature.
The bill has been in the works in various forms for four years, but it was only this year, with the state’s huge budget surplus, that it was proposed for full funding as part of the governor’s budget plan.
“I really appreciate all the hard work that’s been put in over many, many years to get to this point,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian. “I think it makes sense that our school teachers would have the same opportunity for the health insurance that our state employees do.”
Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, said, “I think it’s a really important step to dealing with our shortage of teachers in this state. … I’m really happy that we’re taking a positive step like this.”
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