Commentary

Don Turner: Statewide teachers’ health plan a rare opportunity

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, who is the House Republican leader.

The time to act is now. The Legislature faces a rare opportunity to make Vermont more affordable for all.

The Affordable Care Act requires renegotiations of all teacher health insurance plans before Jan. 1, 2018. This provision allows the state to save money by dropping the high premium or “Cadillac” insurance plans. Working alongside the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association, Gov. Phil Scott has created a proposal to negotiate all health care contracts for teachers and school employees under a single statewide plan. It would bring about an estimated $75 million in savings.

The 20 teachers’ contracts that have been negotiated so far have not produced uniform savings. Therefore, we can be sure that this approach will not match the total savings under the governor’s plan. The Scott administration will use $50 million of the total savings toward health savings accounts for teachers and school employees to hold them financially whole. Therefore, the new plan will not affect benefits and will not incur higher health care expenses for teachers and school staff.

The resulting net savings of $26 million annually will provide enormous property tax relief for Vermonters.

 

The resulting net savings of $26 million annually will provide enormous property tax relief for Vermonters. Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, put forth an amendment to allocate these savings to the education fund for this purpose. Last week, a broad and bipartisan coalition of 52 Republicans, 16 Democrats, and six independents came together in support of the governor’s plan. That we were able to garner significant support from across the aisle demonstrates the importance of the issue. If legislators are to keep the promise of affordability to Vermonters, then we cannot miss out on this once in a lifetime opening to reduce the tax burden.

Unfortunately, the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association opposes the proposal because it does not want to surrender its power to negotiate contracts on behalf of school employees. Pandering to this influential special interest group, House Democratic leaders are alleging that the plan hurts the union’s collective bargaining rights. This is false. Teacher and employee salaries, and other work-related considerations such as time off, will continue to be negotiated at the local school district level. Importantly, the new plan will provide health coverage equity for educators across the state, and restore balance at the bargaining table between the powerful teachers’ union and volunteer local school boards.

As leader of the House Republican caucus, I encourage readers to participate in this consequential debate and endorse the governor’s proposal to save millions each year. I am committed to collaborating with my fellow legislators and the governor’s office to promote such innovative and cost-effective measures that will go a long way toward reviving our economy and making Vermont affordable home for all.

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  • Dave Bellini

    “The Affordable Care Act requires renegotiations of all teacher health insurance plans before Jan. 1, 2018.”
    —————FALSE—————
    The ACA if left unchanged, may tax the amount over a flat dollar threshold of plan value, starting in 2020. The US House has put that tax off until 2026. Senate action is pending. The actual threshold amount is still subject to adjustment. IRS has yet to issue all guidance necessary to precisely determine the trigger amount and some important rules. Much is likely to change before 2020. The ACA does not REQUIRE renegotiations of any health plan. There is no requirement to renegotiate health plans. No requirement.

    • Cheryl Ganley

      While there is no requirement to renegotiate health plans. Vermont Education Health Initiative has phased out the plans that were previously available. This is why we are in a unique situation to change the way teachers received their health insurance. I encourage anyone who has been following this debate to look at the VEHI website regarding the current plans and the new offerings. It is the best way to make an informed decision and not take either sides word for what they say.

      • Kathy Callaghan

        A review of the new plans shows that they provide less benefits, higher copays and deductibles, more out of pocket expenses for teachers and school workers, and generally less financial security for these folks. The theory is that “some” of the “savings” will be returned to the teachers in the form of health savings accounts with which to pay their increased costs, but there is no plan for this. Where are the details? If the teachers are being asked to roll over and cede their health care bargaining power to the state right this minute, where is the detailed agreement on what they will get in return? Absent that I would never agree. A responsible agreement between two parties spells out exactly what each will get from the deal. The legislature and the state need to provide this before any deal is made. This reminds me of the deal between a former governor and his neighbor.

        • Cheryl Ganley

          A Vermonter who is employed by a company with less that 100 employees had that decision made for them by the legislature. As that group is unable to buy insurance outside of the exchange. Why is it OK for the majority who are employed, but not teachers?

          • Paul Richards

            “Why is it OK for the majority who are employed, but not teachers?”
            Because the union has “negotiated” their own discriminatory plans through fear and intimidation and the help of the democrats who have their back. It’s pay to play in their dirty game of deceit and legal thievery.

          • Willem Post

            Paul,

            All state and local government workers should have the same Gold plan, no exceptions.

            That plan has defined benefits, premiums and co-payments.

            Everyone knows the score, up front. No hassles.

            You want more of a plan, you pay more premium.

            The legislature and state government would be required by law to stay completely out of it to make this work.

          • Paul Richards

            “You want more of a plan, you pay more premium.”
            That all sounds good Willem but you should know that in the real world of public sector union monopolies even that would not work. Just look at the current debate. It’s always a tit for tat. You can’t EVER take anything away from these people without giving them something of equal or greater value so in the end we gain nothing. They live in a bubble enabled by the system they and the democrats devised and by us, the unwilling taxpayers who have no alternative. It’s really a brilliant system, for them.
            We can dictate this plan or that plan all we want but are just really reshuffling the deck and getting the same outcome; discriminatory and fat pay and benefit plans, work rules, no ability to manage them and no accountability.
            Until and unless we expand school choice, make public sector unions illegal again and get back to a merit based system nothing will substantially change. The tail wags the dog and we are just along for the ride.

        • Liz Leyden

          Right now, teachers in Burlington pay $0 for health insurance premiums, with an out-of-pocket max of $400 per year. Yes, per year.

          South Burlington’s school budget included a proposal that would have the city pay 100% of teacher health costs. No premiums, no deductibles.

          This isn’t sustainable. Homeowners are tapped out,and a bit resentful. Every job I’ve ever had that offered insurance (and most didn’t) had employees pay at least 50 % of the premiums, with 4-figure deductibles and 5-figure out-of-pocket maxes. Why should I have to pay for someone with a solid gold health plan to get a solid platinum health plan?

    • Kathy Callaghan

      Thank you Dave Bellini for accurately portraying the ACA ‘s tax impact on health plans. This simple and verifiable fact has been falsely stated by the school boards trust, the Governor, most of the legislature, and the mainstream press. Nowhere have I seen an accurate portrayal of the impact of the ACA health plan tax as stated above. Not only does this unpopular tax not kick in in 2018 as the teachers were told, it was moved out to 2020 as they were being told 2018. Trump’s first health care bill moved it out to 2025, and the most recent to 2026. Even if it remains in the ACA – which is unlikely because of corporate resistance and Trump’s close affiliation with business – it certainly has no bearing on the teachers’ health plan in 2017, in 2018, or even most likely in 2020. I don’t mind a full and frank discussion of any issue – in fact I welcome it – but this one has been masked in falsehoods and innuendo from the get go, and that is both unfair and wrong. Facts matter.

    • Gerry Silverstein

      Dave

      I do believe your assessment is accurate.

      Nonetheless, here in South Burlington (SB) negotiations with the SBEA (union representing teachers) are at impasse. The final position of the SBEA is SB taxpayers and State of Vermont (via income sensitivity “prebates” to SB) will pay 100% of healthcare insurance premiums and 100% of out-of-pocket expenses.

      Dave, can you really tell me that the position of the SBEA is reasonable, and shows respect for SB community members… very few if any who have a health insurance package like the one described above.

      Note also that 70% of residents in SB do not have children in the school system (that is not meant to be an argument against supporting high quality schools… only that teacher compensation packages must be fair and reasonable).

      Vermont needs to get its financial house in order. With 1/3rd of the budget allocated to public school spending, and 1/3rd to Medicaid, there is not much room for error in spending.

      Additionally, with 35% of the budget coming from the federal government, and with the federal government’s aggregate debt now at $20 trillion and projected to increase by another $10 trillion over the next 10 years (CBO estimate), at some point the money sent to Vermont from Washington will decline. Just as Vermont cannot be all things to all people, the federal government cannot be all things for all 50 states.

      If the State does not voluntarily take control of spending, future developments will force that action upon the Legislature.

      • Dave Bellini

        Hi Gerry,
        I’m not familiar with any of the contract negotiations taking place in school districts.
        I too, have no kids in the school system and live in the property tax capital of America. I support collective bargaining 100%, however. It’s funny, school boards are saying they are out gunned in bargaining. It reminds me of the old movie: “Anatomy Of A Murder” with Jimmy Stewart. I will caution folks here that desire greater state involvement with education: “Be careful what you ask for.” Once the camel gets its nose under the tent, there’ll be no getting him out. Understand, , folks are asking the state of Vermont to get involved so things will be less expensive. Go down this road and you might like it the first few miles,,, till the pavement ends….. Maybe the Governor can force the teachers to pay higher premiums via the legislation and holding the budget hostage. But Phil’s not ALWAYS going to be Governor. And law makers are just FULL of big ideas and they LOVE new programs. You won’t get to vote down their good ideas either. The next Governor might want to put a daycare in every high school, just combine daycare and school. Wonderful idea! Throw in some human services too, after all everybody wants schools to be a state entity. One big happy family. Then, combine the ed fund with the general fund “to allow greater flexibility”…..
        We’re headed there……………

  • John farrell

    The NEA, as expected, does not want to lose it’s control over the teachers and their
    $300,000+ cushy salaries. Let the state run the show!!

  • Gary Murdock

    The governors proposal is a good first step, and I hope he veto’s any budget that does not incorporate it. The next step would be the negotiation of all labor related cost on a state level; including wages, time off, tuition reimbursement, etc. The school funding system we have is funded on a state level, so it should be negotiated on a state level. Burlington passes a school budget with raises larger than the town I reside in, and I have to pay for it? Nothing fair about that, and aren’t progressives all about fairness?

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Rep Turner, you need to make the point that since the Brigham decision in Vermont’s highest court ruled that
    education was a state responsibility, it only makes sense that teachers
    and other school staff are considered “state employees”. You cant have
    it both ways. A state highway worker has the same benefit package
    working in Swanton or Brattleboro, why should it be any different for
    teachers? You may have to find a way to explain this that even a democrat can understand.

    • Christopher Daniels

      They are not state employees. They are employees of the local school board (a legal entity) through a Master Agreement negotiated by the supervisory union. Splitting off health care benefits from salary unnecessarily complicates negotiations.

      • Rich Lachapelle

        The state is broken up into highway districts just like the school supervisory unions. The folks who drive the plow trucks are not employees of the individual districts, but are STATE EMPLOYEES.
        The VT Supreme Court never ruled that highway maintenance is a state responsibility but yet their benefits are universal statewide. I say either rule that teachers are state employees or vacate the Brigham Decision.

        • Christopher Daniels

          Your analogy of highway workers is incorrect. The highway districts are not legal entities, but units of the same Department.

          • Rich Lachapelle

            Because of the Brigham Decision, neither should the individual school districts be considered legal entities.

          • Christopher Daniels

            that’s your interpretation of Brigham (and you may be correct), but until the legislature or state Supreme Court says otherwise, the school districts are legal entities. One of the lesser evaluated components of Act 46 potentially gives the State Board of Education the power to dissolve a local school board, seize its assets, and transfer them to a new entity if a school board has not joined a consolidated district or has not proven to meet the objectives of Act 46 as Section 9 Alternative Structure.

  • David Schoales

    The last time a governor promised big savings from his favorite new idea on reforming schools, we got Act 46 and higher property taxes. Why are you ready to believe this one? Collective bargaining is based on the Constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances. It is way too important to hand over to a couple politicians trying to make big noise.

  • Spencer Putnam

    It is surprising to see a Republican administration and many Republican legislators jump on board with this proposal. Whatever savings may be realized from renegotiating teacher contracts are available no matter who does the negotiating, the state or local school boards dealing with their local teacher unions.

    The real question is where will the decisions be made about how to use the savings–at the local level or at the state level? If ever there was an opportunity to stand up for local control over school financing, this is it. Our local school boards should continue being responsible for making budget decisions, including negotiating health care plans with their teachers. Then the decision on how to use the savings will be made where it should be–right in the affected communities.

    • John Freitag

      The real question is whether legislators represent the interests of the VTNEA or the people of Vermont. Statewide collective bargaining for health benefits for teachers would result in lower property taxes , a fair package for all teachers in the state and more time spent by teachers, administrators and school board members on educating our children instead often time consuming divisive negotiations.
      It is a concept past Democratic Speaker of the House Ralph Wright , a teacher and union activist, recognized as having great merit. With the unique opportunity to make significant savings due to changes in the health care packaged offered by the teachers own insurance provider, this is the time to make the change. The Governor should remain strong on this, the people of Vermont are behind him on this important issue.

  • Willem Post

    Don Turner,

    This $26 million is just 1.25% of the $1.9 billion education budget. How is that an enormous reduction in property taxes?

    “….teachers and school employees to hold them financially whole….”

    Why is $50 million set aside to pay the out of pocket costs of teachers, etc.?
    Do not other people pay these costs out of their own pocket?

    Teachers, etc., now have Super Platinum plans.

    This will no longer allowed by Obamacare in the future. Teachers, etc., will be getting the Gold plan, just as about all other government workers.

    That involves out of pocket costs. If every one else with a Gold plan suffers the pain of paying out of pockets, why are teachers, etc., exempt?

    This is not just about tax cuts, but about an egregiously unfair situation that developed over the years, and is getting worse and worse, and needs to be corrected asap.

    The state and the already-struggling Vermont households and businesses can no longer afford to pay for such lavish benefit packages of public employees.

    Even a blind man can see this.

    • Paul Richards

      “That involves out of pocket costs. If every one else with a Gold plan suffers the pain of paying out of pockets, why are teachers, etc., exempt?”
      Because they are party to perhaps the biggest scam foisted on the American people by the democrats and the unions they collude with; a discriminatory monopoly that both of them benefit from as they support each other in their pay to play scheme while we sit back with our hands tied and pay for it all.
      Aren’t public sector unions great? Could there be a more adversarial arrangement? Is it any wonder actual life skills and other foundations of learning are now missing from many of our children’s minds? After continually going through such a divisive process is it any wonder many of the teachers and professors indoctrinate as they do? Many can’t possibly present the material in an unbiased way and leave room for real, individual thought. It’s a recipe for the disaster we have.

  • Keith Stern

    Why is this controversial issue such an immediate solution and cutting waste in government apparently ignored? How can having deputy commissioners with several agencies having three each be justified? Are these agencies or departments that large that one person can’t run them? Why do we need a state department of education and school board? Can some government jobs be contracted out to business at a lower cost? And do we need a healthcare exchange or can we contract that with another state at a lower cost?

  • Mary Alice Bisbee

    After reading all of the preceding comments on the Governor’s proposal to provide one statewide teacher’s negotiated healthcare contract, I tend to agree with the Governor’s proposal. I do this as a single payer, healthcare for all, everybody in, nobody out advocate who tends to disagree with most of my fellow progressives.. Yes, this may be a big hit for teachers right now and may require unions to rethink their ways of negotiating contracts, but it could lead to better health care for ALL Vermonters!
    Most of us need to remember that it was not until the 1940’s during WW II that benefits were added to union contracts at all. That was because there was a freeze on all salary increases imposed by the federal government and a huge need for war factory workers who were in short supply. Men were off to war and women were needing health care to support their families. The better benefits a company provided, the better workers they would have!
    Up until that time, unions only negotiated salaries. Perhaps they should go back to that stance and instead join other single payer advocates in supporting better benefits for All Vermonters, and All Americans!, Let’s put the unions to work in a totally new direction!

  • Apparently, the teachers are advocating for choice, their choice. How do they feel about the school choice?

  • David Schoales

    These numbers are all made up, and the savings will disappear if we keep seeing 12.7% increases in insurance rates. This is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and tossing the teachers over the side. We need Medicare for all if we hope to see the costs of health care reduced.