Columns » Max Brantley

The Arkansas legislature punts

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APPLIED A PATCH: The Arkansas General Assembly, meeting for a special session image
  • Brian Chilson
  • APPLIED A PATCH: The Arkansas General Assembly, meeting for a special session.

I wrote this before the Arkansas legislature convened Monday for a three-day session to do something about school employee insurance, provide money for prisons and halt, at least temporarily, an expansion by the Arkansas Lottery into video games like keno.

School insurance was the driving force behind the special session. The session need not have begun, however, to pronounce the certain valedictory on the pre-agreed agenda. The legislature intended to apply a patch, and not much of one.

The legislature's "fix" for already overpriced school insurance was to limit yet another huge rate increase by these means: 1) tap school districts for almost $5 million that they'd rather spend on something else; 2) throw spouses off the plan; 3) throw 4,000 part-time workers off the plan; 4) stop coverage of most bariatric surgery.

These steps are supposed to hold a premium increase for school employees to 3 percent on popular coverage. But premiums aren't the whole story. Increases in deductibles and co-pays mean medical attention will cost still more for school employees who require it. (One barebones policy mentioned in pre-session discussions reportedly has a $13,000 limit on out-of-pocket medical costs. That's self-insurance.)

The legislature wants to produce something for nothing. It won't put an additional dime into school employee insurance. What's worse, some legislators are talking about future privatizing of school employee coverage (though not that of other state employees, including legislators). It will take a magic feat to give school employees the same or better coverage at lower rates after insurance companies take a 15 percent rake of the money.

Here's all you need to know about the lack of fairness. Consider two state employees.

You are a part-time state legislator: You qualify for health insurance. Next year, you will still qualify for health insurance. The coverage for you and your family in 2014, on the Cadillac, no-deductible gold plan costs $423.60 a month. The state contributes, between direct contributions and support from reserves, $928.51 a month to cover the rest.

You are a part-time school cafeteria worker. You qualify for health insurance this year. Next year, you won't. This year, that Cadillac gold plan costs you $1,132.96 a month. The state and school districts contribute $708.64 to cover the rest. Sound fair to you? Of course it isn't. Teachers are unhappy that legislative proposals don't close the gap. Yes, some richer school districts contribute additional amounts to help employees. But many don't. To say school districts could pay more is to misunderstand the vast disparity in district wealth and to ignore the requirement for spending sufficient to deliver equal and adequate education.

School districts are creatures of the state, as much as public agencies. The first 25 mills of school property tax are considered a state millage and thus it is state money, along with additional state foundation funding, tapped for employees.

In the name of economy, the legislature is favoring themselves and other state employees over another class of state workers, teachers.

There is a touch of fairness in one terrible legislative "fix."

The legislature intends to prevent spouses of either state insurance plan from receiving coverage if they have insurance at their own jobs, no matter if it's skimpy coverage or much more costly (such as the school employees' insurance).

A merged system would mean more participants and broader sharing of catastrophic costs. No legislator seems interested in the impact of a merger on overall expenses or what the impact would be of equalization of state contributions to public and school employees.

The Republican majority will do anything for teachers except spend money on them.

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