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Column: Brace for Vt. NEA’s health care demand

For the Valley News
Published: 7/18/2021 10:00:03 PM
Modified: 7/18/2021 10:00:06 PM

During this last legislative session, school board members and employer commissioners on the statewide commission fought hard for regular Vermonters. Yet, at nearly every step in the process, legislators seemed intent on creating the conditions to allow for the enrichment of school employee health care benefits at the expense of Vermont taxpayers.

So, it should come as no surprise that just weeks into the current round of school employee health care bargaining, Vermont NEA’s position is that taxpayers should be on the hook for millions more so that school employees pay even less for health care.

Back in 2018, the governor recommended, and the Legislature passed, the law creating statewide bargaining for educational employees to control the spiraling cost of health care benefits. It also set a benchmark of all covered employees paying 20% of such cost and penalized school districts that didn’t achieve this result by “clawing back” the difference between 20% and what they were actually achieving.

Unfortunately, all of this seems to have been quickly forgotten by the current Legislature despite several reminders from both the governor’s administration and the Legislature’s own Joint Fiscal office.

The totally unsurprising result: a Vermont NEA demand for substantial reductions in both the premium and out-of-pocket share of the overall costs to the tune of tens of millions of dollars of additional taxpayer cost. Fortunately, the employer commissioners have said no way, and both sides are headed to fact-finding after mediation efforts could not resolve the issue.

Vermont school employees already enjoy some of the richest health care benefits in the nation. But that’s likely not the story you have heard. What you probably heard is that teachers and support staff at our schools are the victims of exorbitant health care costs that continue to escalate.

Perhaps you’ve seen the video in which the Vermont NEA says that health care costs have risen 65.6% since 2013 and that Vermonters spend on average 16.7 cents of every dollar on health care. This is true for Vermonters that get their insurance through the exchange, but it’s not true for school employees who have access to benefits through an entirely different marketplace that’s not available to the rest of us.

It’s the classic apples-to-oranges comparison.

The reality is that health care benefit costs for school employees are some of the lowest that you’ll see in the entire nation — for both premium and out-of-pocket costs. Consider this: A school support staff person working a minimum of 17.5 hours per week can purchase a single-person gold health care plan for $145 per month and the total annual out-of-pocket costs are capped at $300.

Why are these benefit costs so low? Because taxpayers are picking up the difference. For that same employee, taxpayers are covering $9,184 annually. Odds are that your benefits cost you more.

The folks at the Vermont NEA want you to believe that this isn’t a problem with school employee health care, this is a problem with the entire health care system. They want you to believe that they are feeling the same pinch that you are — that it hurts just as much. They want you to believe that by enriching the benefits for school employees still further we’re all helping to fix the system.

The problem is that, unless you’re a school employee, you don’t have access to the same set of plans at the same cost; you won’t see the benefit. The problem is that your taxes will go up to fund the enrichment of their health care benefits while you’re left wondering how to get the same deal.

There’s another part to this story that Vermont NEA doesn’t want you to know. In June, 98% of the staff of the NEA, the nation’s largest union, authorized a strike. The reason? According to the association’s president, Robin McLean, it’s salary and health care costs. She said, “Let us make this clear: NEA is the largest union in the country, and its managers are asking staff to accept stagnant pay now and well into the future at a time when inflation and the cost of living are skyrocketing. NEA management is also trying to hike health care costs and slash retirement benefits that were promised to employees who dedicated their careers to the union’s mission.”

Let that sink in for a moment. The NEA is trying to cut health benefits for its own employees while simultaneously arguing that the folks it represents at the bargaining table should pay less.

Apparently, health care costs are a concern for the NEA — unless those health care costs can be shifted to taxpayers. Then it’s perfectly fine.

When I and others offered testimony in the Legislature asking for guardrails for taxpayers in the state law that governs these benefit negotiations, we were repeatedly met with pushback from legislators.

The end result was predictable and has now become reality.

In their initial proposal, the Vermont NEA is pushing for a reduction in costs for all employees at all levels. The impact to Vermonters could be tens of millions of dollars. That’s tens of millions of dollars that will not be available for school programs, student services, transportation and other activities. That’s why this is so important.

On the heels of a global pandemic, when the services of our schools are so desperately needed, we are instead looking at diverting millions of dollars away from education and student support services in order to subsidize a benefit that is already rich by any comparison.

School boards can’t do this alone. We need your voice on this issue. It’s your money. How do you want to use it?

Neil Odell, of Norwich, is the vice chair of the Dresden School Board and president of the Vermont School Boards Association board of directors.




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