Special Session Nears; Bills Would End Health Benefits For School Part-timers

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 102 views 

All part-time school and state employees as well as many spouses of full-time employees would be ineligible for insurance benefits under two draft bills discussed during a meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees Tuesday.

If consensus can be achieved, a special session could be held “in the next few weeks,” said Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who is chairing a task force charged with drafting the legislation.

Hendren said legislators could expect to see final drafts “hopefully tomorrow” with a special session occurring in the next few weeks. Consensus support would have to be obtained by majorities in the House and Senate before Gov. Mike Beebe would call a special session.

A special session would have to be held by the end of August because school insurance operates on a calendar year.

The task force was created after the Legislature met in a special session in October to address soaring public school employee health insurance rates. Legislators poured $43 million in one-time money into the plan and added another $36 million annually from other sources as a quick fix. The task force was created to find more permanent solutions to the continuing problem.

The recommendations also would affect state employees, whose health insurance system is in better shape financially.

In one bill, which Hendren said is more controversial, employees who work less than 30 hours per week would not be eligible, saving the school employee plan $10.2 million and the state plan $2 million.

That drew opposition from two Republican lawmakers. Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he grew up in his father’s school bus shop and was concerned about how the legislation would affect part-time employees. Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers, said that bus drivers may offer a student the first smile they see each day and that cafeteria workers offer extra food to students they know need it.

Hendren said that state and public school employees were being offered health benefits not offered in the private sector. After the meeting, he said, “I think we’re on the right path. I think people understand the alternative is our teachers are going to take a big hit, and that was our task is to stop that from happening.”

In the other bill, employee spouses who have health coverage through another group health plan would not be eligible for school and state benefits. That would save up to $4 million in both the public school and state plans. The bill also would require verification of dependent eligibility, which would save each plan up to $4 million. It also would require employees with high-deductible plans to be enrolled in a health savings account.

The final draft of that bill also would provide more flexibility in covering bariatric surgeries, such as gastric bypass surgery. That change would save the school and state employee plans $8 million each.

The task force is charged with meeting until June 2015. These two bills focused on “the quick changes that will make a cash difference immediately,” Hendren said. Other options, such as combining the state and school employee plans, will be considered in future sessions.