A lot of behind-the-scenes work needs to happen before workers and their families — as many as 300,000 individuals — know what monthly premiums they can expect to pay.
Heads up, teachers. And school-bus drivers and principals and attendance clerks and — well, just about anyone who works for a public school in Washington state.
Big changes are coming to your health benefits once the state takes control of them starting next January. But a lot of behind-the-scenes work needs to happen before those workers and their families — as many as 300,000 individuals — even know what monthly premiums they can expect to pay once open enrollment starts this fall.
Individual changes in health care costs will depend on how much employees pay right now in their district-run plan and whether they cover any dependents.
In general, however, public-school employees with a family can expect their monthly premiums to come down while single employees may pay more, according the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), which lobbied against the state takeover of educator health benefits.
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If everything goes as planned, open enrollment for school employees would run from Oct. 1-Nov. 15, with subscribers choosing from plans depending on budget and need. Dental, vision and other benefits, such as long-term disability insurance, will also be available.
But nothing is set in stone. Perhaps the biggest hurdle: The Washington Legislature first must approve $900 million to fund a new single state-run health exchange for educators, known as the School Employees Benefits Board (SEBB).
For at least two decades, the state has doled out a flat rate to each of its 295 school districts to pay for employee benefits, including health care, but districts individually purchase separate health benefits and bargain benefits packages locally. Once established, the new statewide board will manage those plans centrally and operate similar to the Public Employees Benefits Board that adopts the health-insurance plans, establishes eligibility criteria and sets the premium rates for 370,000 state workers and their dependents.
“This is actually pretty huge,” said Doug Nelson, who as government relations director for the Public School Employees of Washington, the union representing secretaries, security officers and other classified staff in public schools, has fought for a statewide health-insurance program like the SEBB since the early 1990s. “It’s not the most exciting topic but will impact hundreds of thousands of people. “
The SEBB won’t approve specific employee premiums until after lawmakers convene for the 2019 legislative session and approve a final 2019-21 budget.
After that happens, workers will see changes. “Somebody who’s covering their family, the law requires that they only pay three times as much as a (single) individual will pay. That’s actually a reduction for that family’s premiums,” said WEA spokesman Rich Wood.
“For an individual without any dependents,” he added, “out-of-pocket costs might go up a bit in premiums.”
Nelson and Wood also noted that the state will offer full coverage to part-time employees who work at least 630 hours a year, or an average of 3.5 hours a day. Previously, the state only offered a prorated amount based on how many hours part-time employees worked.
The new program isn’t inexpensive.
As they draft a new two-year state budget in the coming months, lawmakers will have to provide $900 million to fund the SEBB and its policy changes, according to the state Office of Financial Management (OFM). About $643 million of that pays for the expanded coverage, which could add 9,000 new employees and their roughly 30,000 dependents to the insurance rolls.
While drafting the budget, it would be difficult for lawmakers to make changes to the program. Legislators would have to vote to reject the negotiated contract, and also change the language of the law, according to David Schumacher, director of the OFM.
“It’s not as easy as saying, ‘we don’t want to do that,’” said Schumacher.
Still, some lawmakers have grumbled about the $900 million price tag, said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who spent a decade working to pass the state takeover of educator health benefits.
“Lots of people are saying, ‘I thought this was supposed to save us money.’ Well, yes and no,” Hobbs said.
He explained that, on the whole, negotiating health benefits for a larger pool of employees — rather than 295 individual districts doing so — will save money. But the state board will cost more in the short-term as it takes on more financial responsibility for insurance plans from districts and employees.
“We shirked our responsibility for years,” Hobbs said. “This new system will be a bit painful because it’s completely new, (but) this is what the price tag is.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the starting date for state-managed health care benefits for teachers. It begins January 2020.