Keeping people covered with good quality health care no matter their ZIP code or paycheck is far cheaper than the burden of illness and lost productivity.

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As a food-service worker for Eatonville School District, Patty Estes paid $118 each month for her high-deductible health insurance. She couldn’t afford to add her teenage daughter to the plan. She had co-workers who were paying more than they were earning to access health-care coverage.

When her district chose to join the Public Employees Benefits Board (PEBB) Program in 2016, Estes was worried that her health-care options would be even more cost-prohibitive. But she learned that she would be able to cover herself and her daughter for $49 a month, and have a health savings account so she could set aside pretax dollars to cover expenses such as copays.

“I kept wondering what the catch was, but there was no catch,” Estes said. “It was a lifesaver for my family and me.”

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Estes is now a member of the School Employees Benefits Board, which is hard at work making decisions to implement the program in January 2020. The board already has met 15 times, and we continue seeking public comment as policy is developed.

The Legislature has directed the Health Care Authority to create this program to cover K-12 employees and their eligible dependents. That means starting next year, about 170,000 Washingtonians will have access to a more equitable set of benefits, including medical, dental, vision and life insurance. No longer will K-12 employees have richer or poorer benefits options depending on where they work. Classified staff anticipated to work at least 630 hours a year — the food-service workers, bus drivers, custodians and others who are essential supporters in educating our youngest learners — will have access to benefits that far too often were out of reach.

While we at the Health Care Authority — in close partnership with the board, labor and the Legislature — have been working on implementing SEBB for more than a year, the conversation has been happening for decades. Numerous studies over the years have pointed to the same conclusion: To help ensure certificated and classified employees in our public schools have high-quality, affordable health care, we need one system.

It is just common sense: Keeping people covered and healthy no matter their Zip code or paycheck is far cheaper than the burden of illness and lost productivity. The Legislature will be making funding decisions for this program this session. Affordable health care for families is key in creating greater economic stability and a strong middle class. By using the purchasing power of the Health Care Authority, the largest health-care purchaser in the state, we can help ensure K-12 employees from Spokane to Sequim have access to health care.

We still are building the SEBB Program, and there is a robust conversation to be had this legislative session to help ensure resources are available to fund the program. We are committed to offering world-class benefits to our K-12 employees, and welcome their involvement and input as we continue this journey.