Idaho House passes teacher health insurance bill

Rep. Rod Furniss says there’s “quite a gap” between what the state spends a year…

Rep. Rod Furniss says there’s “quite a gap” between what the state spends a year for state employee health insurance and what it provides for teachers.

BOISE, Idaho — Major legislation to bring school districts employees’ health care coverage up to the same standard as that of state employees passed the Idaho House Monday on a 55-14 vote, after an hour of overwhelmingly positive debate.

“Y’know, 16 years ago I ran for the Legislature, and before I ran I never did check to see how much they paid us or what the benefits were,” Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, told the House. “I was surprised when I got here that I got health care for 125 bucks a month. That really was a big benefit that I never thought was out there. And I made the assumption that teachers also must be on this state plan and have the same benefits that we have.” But they don’t, he said.

Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he’s worked on the legislation for four years and been in at least 100 meetings about it. He said there’s “quite a gap” between what the state spends a year for state employee health insurance – including for legislators – and what it provides for teachers. “We pay $12,500 for state employee health insurance and $8,400 for teachers,” he said. “For a decade we’ve been trying to get that up to where the state employees are, we just haven’t been able to do it or have the resources to do it. There’s been many challenges. … It’s been hard for teachers.”

The change will have a big price tag: $105 million a year, plus a one-time buy-in fee of up to $75.5 million. The bill, HB 443, sets up the fund, though lawmakers still will need to vote on an appropriation bill. It also repeals an existing program that provides leadership bonuses to teachers who take on extra duties that now costs more than $19.7 million a year to partly offset the cost.

House Education Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who originally spearheaded the leadership premium legislation, said, “Much as I love that, I think the trade-off here … is so much better.”

School district employees, including both teachers and classified staff such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers, now pay up to $1,500 a month for health insurance with up to a $5,000 deductible, said Furniss, an insurance agent. Some lower-paid workers actually end up having to write a check to the school district for their insurance each month, because premiums exceed what they earn.

“I think we can do better,” he said.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where it would need to clear a Senate committee and pass the full House to reach the governor’s desk. Gov. Brad Little championed the change in his State of the State message to lawmakers this year.

Only Reps. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, spoke against it during the House debate. Nate raised technical issues about the fiscal note and at one point was reprimanded after he suggested his opposition would be used as a “soundbite for the next campaign.”

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said she checked with the state Division of Financial Management about the fiscal note, and was advised that a bill like HB 443, which creates a fund but doesn’t allocate money to it, has a zero fiscal impact. Backers of the bill, including co-sponsor Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said it would be up to the Legislature’s joint budget committee to vote on the funding, and the House would get a vote on that as well.

Treasure Valley representatives overwhelmingly supported the bill, but three – Reps. Greg Ferch, R-Boise; Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; and Joe Palmer, R-Meridian – voted against it. None of the three said why.

The bill would allow school districts to join the state employee health insurance plan, or to use the increased funding to negotiate for better coverage from other insurers.

Among the many House members speaking out in favor of the legislation was Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, who said, “As an educator of 32 years, I’ll tell you there has never been a harder time to be in education than there is right now. And it’s not just teachers – it’s also every other staff member that is working there.”

Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, a high school teacher, said as a retired Air Force officer, he came to teaching as a second career, and brought his health coverage and pension with him. “When people hear that I’m a retired lieutenant colonel from the Air Force and that I teach school now, very frequently do I hear, ‘Oh, you can afford to teach,’” he said. “I want people to be able to come into education and receive the respect and the benefits and the health care that they deserve.”

Horman said the bill could help reduce property taxes, as some districts now have to turn to supplemental tax levies to fund health insurance.

Boyle said, “I come from a rural district, as you all know, and those small rural districts have struggled mightily to try to come up with some money to help their teachers on health insurance. It can be a tremendous cost. And the last thing that we want is more supplemental levies to pay for that. So this is a chance for the state to stand up and put their money where their mouth is about really helping teachers.”

Scott drew several objections after she claimed the bill would give the appearance of benefiting Blue Cross due to campaign donations; it currently holds the contract to administer the state’s self-funded employee health insurance plan, but that contract goes out to bid again within the next year.

Horman told the House, “It doesn’t go to any particular insurer. … Districts will be able to take these funds, go out to bid.”

“We’ve heard in testimony from teachers who had to leave because their salary was insufficient to provide for a family,” she said. “I have never believed that we would solve the salary problem in this state until we solve this.”

A full dozen House members from both parties spoke out strongly in support of the bill during the debate. Said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, “This is wonderful. This is what I came to this building to see happen.” 

This article originally appeared in Idaho Press. Read more at IdahoPress.com

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