Orange East Boards, Teachers Deadlocked Over Health Care

Saturday, October 11, 2014
Bradford, Vt. — Teachers at two of the six schools in the Orange East Supervisory Union are at risk of starting the new year without health insurance after a five-hour mediation session this week failed to bring about a new collective bargaining agreement.

Central to the impasse is a disagreement over health insurance and issues arising from Vermont’s new health care laws. Teachers at the elementary schools in Bradford, Vt., and Newbury, Vt., are being forced onto the state’s health care exchange in January, according to OESU School Board Chairman Steve Simpson and Oxbow High School teacher Ted Pogacar, negotiations chairman for the teachers.

The teachers are seeking the establishment of taxpayer-funded health reimbursement accounts, or HRAs, at the two schools to make up for new out-of-pocket costs on the exchange plan, which the school boards “could not agree to” because of increased costs, according to a written update on negotiations distributed by the supervisory union.

Bradford and Newbury are just the second and third schools in the state to deal with public school teachers purchasing health benefits on the state health insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect.

A technicality involving the shift of cost-sharing between the boards and teachers at Bradford and Newbury elementary schools in recent years means they will no longer be eligible after Dec. 31 to purchase health insurance from the Vermont Education Health Initiative, known as VEHI, a nonprofit run by the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust and the state’s teacher’s union. VEHI currently provides health insurance to most teachers in Vermont.

If the two sides do not resolve the reimbursement account issue by Dec. 31, the teachers will start the year without health insurance.

“It’s very difficult, making a change from one plan to the other, and I guess the biggest thing is the fear of the unknown,” Simpson said in an interview Wednesday. “I think if you ask anybody, ‘Do you want to go change health insurances?,’ they’d say, ‘I’d rather go have a root canal.’ ”

In a phone interview Friday, Pogacar said that the “mood in Orange East is the best that it’s ever been” in 25 years of working there, and “we just want to get past this.”

“The (Orange East Education Association) is really looking to keep the conversation going and get a settlement,” he said.

Pogacar noted that the disagreement is “not about salary” but specifically about the “health care transition.”

“The disagreement is over the board funding HRAs to cover the out-of-pocket expenses, and we don’t think the HRAs are that costly,” he said.

The school boards have offered the exchange’s platinum plan, which is most similar to the teacher’s current VEHI plan. The biggest exception, according to the release, is the way costs are allocated between premiums and out-of-pocket payments, which would max out at $1,250 for a single plan and $2,500 for a two-person or family plan.

Teachers’ current VEHI plan does not have any out-of-pocket costs, Pogacar said.

Simpson noted that the exchange’s platinum plan covers more services, including pediatric dental, vision and preventative care, as well as a larger list of accepted providers.

Pogacar, the teacher negotiations chairman, said the costs of the HRAs to the school boards would be negligible, estimating it at less than half a percent of each school’s budget.

Simpson, the school board chairman, said that establishing an HRA within the supervisory union had never been done before. He said he could not estimate the exact costs because the schools’ contributions would be dependent on what kind of plans each of the teachers took.

He pointed out that the schools would already be facing high costs as a result of joining the exchange because of assessment fees which the boards, like other employers, will be required to pay to the state. He said those fees could range around $13,000 a year for a school of 20 teachers, calling it “getting whacked on.”

The school boards and teacher negotiating councils reached an impasse in June, and teachers have been working without a contract since that time. According to the supervisory union’s update, the next step is for the two sides to move on to a fact-finding period followed by a hearing, a process which could take “60 to 90 days, or more.”

Simpson said both sides have been negotiating for just more than a year, and they both lobbied for a federal exemption from the rule that triggered the requirement, without luck. The moderator, he said, told both sides they were in an “unenviable position” and that “nobody’s going to win in this.”

He called the situation “painstaking” and “difficult at best.”

“We want to have good health care care for our teachers,” Simpson said. “Unfortunately, as soon as we, Bradford and Newbury, were forced onto the health care exchange, we were pioneers.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.