Changes made to the Harford County Public Schools health care plan under next year’s budget would result in higher health care costs to employees and caused two bargaining units to file grievances and hundreds to protest the move at a school board meeting on Monday.
Responding to the outcry, School Board President Mark Wolkow said the budget would be reviewed and that next year, the health plan would be a negotiated item.
Teachers and support staff packed the board room, spilled into the lobby, and lined the streets outside the school administration building in Bel Air. They wore stickers saying “No Rx Increases” and held signs reading “Save our Healthcare.”
On the streets, employees chanted slogans and encouraged passing cars to honk in support. Inside the board meeting, they railed against higher out-of-pocket costs, demanded negotiations instead of unilateral decisions by the school board and decried the way in which changes to the health plan were communicated to employees.
More than 20 public comments were heard, ranging from the polite (“Thank you for listening to us” to the in-your-face (“[Employees] are now being blatantly and financially raped by the health care plan being forced on them”).
Randy Cerveny, president of the Harford County Education Association, which represents the county’s teachers, said that school system employees will go from having no deductible in the PPO plan that ends June 30, to a $4,800 maximum out-of-pocket expense, with another $4,800 maximum triggered in January 2011.
He said the new plan could cost some teachers more than 10 percent of their gross pay and asked whether other options had been considered. He added that he understood the pressures of the economic climate, but said the new health care plan was adopted without input from bargaining groups and that teachers were angry.
“HCEA has filed a grievance,” he said. “Heath care is a mandatory subject of bargaining and must be negotiated.”
Barbara Yost, president of the Harford County Educational Services Council, which represents support staff such as instructional assistants, said her organization had also filed a grievance over the lack of negotiation, adding that the new plan could cost up to 40 percent of lower-paid staff’s salary.
Echoing Yost’s concerns about the disproportionate impact on support staff, HCESC board member Dina Lombardi-Cavallaro asked, “Where the heck is Robin Hood when you need him?”
Teacher and HCEA board member Brian Rheinhardt said the health plan changes were kept hidden from employees until they received an e-mail at the end of April. He said that, with the lack of transparency and passive enrollment, employees would be hit with the new PPO costs which he speculated were intentionally designed to force employees into the cheaper HMO option.
“What we have here is an unacceptable failure to communicate,” said Pat White, a 30-year teacher. She said that “conflicting facts and figures” were proof of poor communication, which also made it difficult for employees to make informed decisions.
She said she calculated a possible 300 percent increase in health care costs, or the equivalent of 23 furlough days. Calling unilateral changes made without the collective bargaining process “not fair or ethical,” she said negotiations would answer questions and allow for an equitable agreement to be reached.
Responding to a request from The Dagger, Teri Kranefeld, HCPS manager of communications, provided the following overview of the health plan changes:
In Network: last year – $0 deductible for individual or family plan
this year – $100 deductible for individual/ $200 deductible for family
Out of Network: last year – $200 for individual/$400 for family
this year – $300 for individual/$600 for family
Increased deductable to $100 individual/$200 family from $0/$0 last year
I think, the $4800 number you are referring to is the out-of-pocket max. Out-of-pocket expenses are what the employee would pay for health-related services above and beyond the monthly premium. The out-of-pocket maximum is the highest or total amount the health insurance company requires an employee to pay towards the cost of their health care. Last year, the out-of-pocket maximums with the PPN plan were $1,200 for an individual and $2,400 for a family. With the plan design changes, the out-of-pocket maximum has increased to $2,400 for an individual and $4,800 for a family. Once your reach your out-of-pocket max, the insurance picks up 100% of the costs.
The deductibles run on a calendar year. Currently there is a $1200/$2400 out of pocket max for the current year that started January 1, 2010. As of July 1 that will change to $2400/$4800. Any expenses between January 1, 2010 and June 30, 2010 would be applied to the new max. On January 1, 2011 the new calendar year will restart the $2400/$4800 out of pocket max.
Other speakers at the board meeting suggested ways to save money. Nominated for the budget axe were fields made of specialized athletic turf, administrator positions, new furniture, attendance at conferences, professional development, vehicle fleets, private placements for special education students, and the lattes and bagels that one speaker said were served at school meetings.
Many asked for a change back to the current health care plan and predicted there would be dire consequences otherwise: medications rationed, medical treatments postponed, work missed due to illness, as well as employees working extra jobs or quitting their jobs en masse in search of better compensation.
Paul Schatz, former HCEA president and teacher-of-the-year, spoke on behalf of retirees. Schatz drew a contrast between the current leadership and the leadership of former Harford superintendent Dr. Alfonso A. Roberty, after whom the school administration building is named.
“You are defaming and defacing the name of this building and his legacy in this school system,” he told the board.
Schatz said that school system employees had traded monetary gain for other benefits and that retirees had earned their health benefits.
A bell rang and time was called on Schatz, but Schatz demanded an extension from Board President Wolkow, saying, “Mark, you’re going to have to carry me away if I can’t have five minutes.” Wolkow gave him more time.
Schatz said that Harford County had money to spare, noting that the county executive and county council added funds to help reverse a 2 percent salary cut in the “ridiculous, bone-headed budget sent on to county government”, adding “My God, what a joke.”
“I hope the leadership will wake up and realize you’re hurting personnel,” Schatz concluded, “You need to stop destroying what we’ve gained.”
Harford County Councilman Dick Slutzky later told The Dagger that school employees deserved reasonable benefits, saying “Nothing is more important than a competent and contented teacher in the classroom.”
Slutzky, who is also a former educator and the council’s liaison to the school board, said that he had not been made aware of the new health care costs for employees at the time the council passed the county’s budget.
At the board meeting, School Board President Mark Wolkow responded to nearly two hours of testimony, saying he heard that “staff feels not respected by the actions of the board of education and the superintendent.”
As if on cue, a passing car beeped loudly, prompting approval from the crowd. Wolkow continued, “That’s something were going to work on.”
Wolkow said the school board approved the design changes to the health care plan this year, but would negotiate the plan in the future. He said this year’s changes were discussed with all five bargaining units representing school employees in March, but that the communications were not rolled out by HCPS in a way that people understood or that would allow them to make timely decisions.
He said it was a tough budget year in which health care costs rose 6 percent, but said “We’ll look again at the budget”, and consider some of the ideas mentioned. Wolkow was interrupted several times by heckling and had to use his gavel to quiet the crowd after he said a health care advisory group would be revived next year to “start discussions and get more input.”
When his turn came to speak, Superintendent Robert Tomback offered no comment regarding health care. But earlier in the evening, Tomback came under fire from Amanda Jones, who spoke on behalf of her father, a teacher who couldn’t attend the meeting because he was working a second job. Jones said Tomback was looking down during public comments, rather than looking speakers in the face.
When Tomback responded by meeting her gaze, Jones added, “I suggest you look up from now on.”