by Max Brantley
The Health and Insurance Committees convened at 10 AM today to discuss the convtroversy over skyrocketing insurance costs for public school employees. This committee room is as packed as I've ever seen it — standing room only, and after a recess for lunch Capitol security placed an apologetic note on the door saying that admittance would have to be limited. Sen. Rapert, chair of the Insurance Committee, opened the meeting this morning by saying he's received more emails about this issue than any other during his time as a legislator (considering the issues he's championed, that's saying something). Rapert also said that he has written a letter to the Governor's office expressing his support for convening a special session, if needed, to come up with both emergency fiscal relief and a longer-term solution.
Apparently, the bulk of the folks in attendance are employees from Green County Tech, a district near Paragould, clad in green and gold school spirit shirts. They're not happy. The district made the decision to close its doors today — in exchange for adding a day to the end of the school year — so that employees could be in attendance. The Green County superintendent, Jerry Noble, has been a vocal proponent of demanding a fix and is testifying this afternoon. He has some scathing words for the Employee Benefits Division (EBD), which announced the hike in teachers' rates two weeks ago. Noble implied that EBD is somehow using the increase in teacher rates as a means of suppressing potential rate increases in the state employee insurance system, although he qualified that this is "speculation".
There is a good deal of finger pointing happening in testimony, though tempers are dampened by the general complexity of the numbers involved. Should districts be contributing more locally? Some already do, if they can afford it; the generosity of districts' benefits varies tremendously across the state. Should more money be appropriated by the state? That certainly needs to happen in the short term, but it doesn't solve the systemic problem; rates have been prohibitively high for some time, which is why this new 50% increase is so painful. Should the plans themselves be reconfigured by EBD? Yes, probably. Is the ACA to blame? That's been implied a couple of times, but nobody can say how. The fundamental problem is that not enough teachers are enrolled in the system — only about 65% of school employees are opting to receive insurance through work, because rates are so high. If the rate hike does happen, that percentage will plummit further, with more and more employees (the healthy ones) leaving...and that would drive rates even higher. This isn't unique to Arkansas or to teachers. It's the same cost "death spiral" that's happened to varying degrees in the health care system nationwide and that the ACA is meant to fix.