Gov. Mike Beebe on Monday (Sept. 23) gave public school employees at least a one-month reprieve from insurance premiums that are set to rise at or above 50% for many plans.

The enrollment period for public school employees will move from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1 “to see if any consensus can be achieved to address the rate hikes that have been announced,” Beebe said.

Beebe has said the premium increases are “awfully high,” and teachers will get “hit with catastrophic increases” if the Legislature waits until the fiscal session in early 2014 to address the issue.

The higher premiums are caused by an estimated $53 million shortfall in the Public School Health Insurance program. The public school health insurance plan, which provides coverage for roughly 47,000 teachers and school personnel in Arkansas, has been troubled for months.

Lawmakers were made aware of the problem as early as December 2012, according to minutes from an insurance subcommittee meeting. Toward the end of the session, the issue was debated with lawmakers and Beebe agreed to move $8 million in general improvement funds to handle several catastrophic claims that hit the system.

Beebe and lawmakers have faced increased pressure from teachers and other school employees to address the problem.

On Monday morning, Beebe and other state officials met with about 50 superintendents for almost 90 minutes to discuss options. Beebe said during his afternoon press conference that he was “very pleased” with the amount of superintendents who attended and their attitude toward seeking a solution.

Beebe met with about 25 state legislators after the superintendent meeting.

“I have the same response about them. I was pleased with their engagement. I was pleased with their questions, thoughts and discussion,” Beebe said of the legislators.

A Tuesday meeting is scheduled with teachers groups and other “frontline” groups to get their input, Beebe explained.

He also warned that “whatever solution is going to hurt” because there are only so many budgets from which to tap funds. Possible solutions mentioned by Beebe in interviews prior to Monday included reducing or halting tax cuts approved in the recent session, pulling money from other funds, increasing state control of how school districts allocate money for insurance and reviewing the system for possible changes.

“So far, I’m optimistic,” Beebe said Monday. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to have a consensus. You may end up with a consensus among superintendents that public school employees hate. You may end up with a consensus that public school employees like that superintendents hate. You may end up with a consensus of both that the legislature hates.”

He said a special session will be called when there is consensus on a plan that addresses the short-term problem and paves the way for a long-term solution.

Whatever happens will need to happen fast.

“Along with that, we’re going to need a consensus if one is going to be achieved, from all these various constituencies, by about October 15,” Beebe said, adding that state officials have said Oct. 15 would provide just enough time to get new information about to public school employees prior to a Nov. 1 enrollment deadline.

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The City Wire Staff